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[GUEST POST] Sean Danker on The Accessibility Struggle

Sean Danker is a member of the U.S. Military and a lifelong fan of science fiction. He has been writing since he was fifteen. He read entirely too much Asimov in college, and now we’re all paying the price for it. His hobbies include biting off more than he can chew, feeling sorry for himself on Twitter (follow him @silverbaytimes), and telling people to lighten up. He is currently serving in the military on a base in North Dakota. His new novel, first in the new Evagardian military science fiction series, is Admiral.

The Accessibility Struggle

by Sean Danker

There are too many different approaches to storytelling to count, and while I don’t think any one story has more value than another, they aren’t all equally easy to get into. With the explosive, action thriller you usually know where you stand. For slower, more artistic work, some folks find it smart and insightful, and some find it indulgent and boring. That’s the nature of art.

In the past I never gave it much thought beyond that, but I recently encountered one of these more obtuse stories – a movie that was doing its thing at its own pace with absolutely no intention of holding my hand or explaining itself. I got through it – but when I was done, I had no idea what it had been trying to tell me. Things had happened; someone had spent time, effort, and money to make this film – but what was the point?

To understand what I’d just seen, I had to watch a twenty minute, scene-by-scene analysis on Youtube. To my surprise, once I’d had it explained to me, I found myself agreeing with the guy who’d made the analysis – that the movie was actually pretty cool. It had managed to give a thoughtful commentary on its subject matter, cleverly masking every point with a creepy metaphor that was – once explained – very apt.

It left me thinking. Not about the film, or its themes – but about the approach the filmmakers had taken to delivering those themes. This was a movie with something to say, but through its convoluted, artsy execution, it had effectively hidden that message. The metaphor was so complete that it was hard to see past it to the true idea.

To me, that’s like writing a billboard in a language no one understands, or locking someone’s gift in a box and giving it to them without the key.

I’m sure there are people way cooler than me who could watch and appreciate that movie without any help from Youtube. Maybe after a few viewings, I could’ve figured it out for myself.

But isn’t that kind of a lot of work? And when something that’s supposed to be entertainment starts looking like work, you have to be careful.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the pretentious stuff. Tarkovsky films, science fiction by the Strugatskiy brothers. Stanislaw Lem. Masamune Shirow, and so on. I don’t have a problem with work that sacrifices accessibility on the altar of challenging its audience.

So what made this movie different? It must’ve been the twenty minute explanation video.

I don’t think art needs to be judged, but in this case I’m tempted to judge how effectively it communicates with the audience. There’s a broad spectrum of fiction, and science fiction in particular. At one end, impenetrable, cerebral slogs. At the other, comic book shenanigans.

There’s no perfect sweet spot, no quantifiable balance between thematic content and kinetic entertainment that every creator should strive for. Every audience is made up of individuals, all looking for something a little different.

But how much challenge is too much? How much work can a reader or viewer be reasonably expected to put in?

It might be something for both creators and consumers to think about. I’m torn. Once I had it explained to me, I really liked that pretentious movie. But the fact that I needed to have it explained to me is – at least to the commercial entertainer in me – an indication that the movie did something wrong. Did it?

I respect work from every part of the science fiction spectrum, and I’m all for the indulgent, pretentious stuff that drives away its audience by being bizarre and incomprehensible. Art is art. But can it be too smart? If so, how smart is too smart?

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on [GUEST POST] Sean Danker on The Accessibility Struggle

  1. You ask can art be too smart. That spoke to me because, by coincidence, I spent the last few days pondering a closely related question: why is it that over the years my reading tastes have migrated away from the puzzle box/ obtuse/ indirect forms of science fiction storytelling to more direct modes? I think the answer is that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve either gained in experience of how the real world works, or maybe I’ve just grown more cantankerous. Either way, when I reveal the layers of metaphor and indirection of ‘smart art’, all too often the worldview of the creator now feels naïve to me. And that is an unsatisfying payoff.

    So now I’m back to seeking the same kind of thrills from science fiction that I sought before I reached my teen years: the sense of wonder that leaves you gasping with the fleeting notion that you’ve glimpsed a profound truth about the universe. A story needs to reach escape velocity from the mundane world to attain this sense of wonder, and artistic cleverness for its own sake is a very heavy payload. The greatest authors can still reach escape velocity, and I can still admire the workmanship as we journey, but most don’t make it and burn up in the atmosphere.

    I guess everyone’s mileage varies. I know as I’ve put miles on my clock, my tastes have varied enormously.

    Good luck with ‘Admiral’. Love the cinematic feel to the cover.

  2. Jalopy // May 4, 2016 at 8:16 am //

    Art isn’t necessarily entertainment.

    • Jalopy // May 4, 2016 at 8:17 am //

      And I think it’s pretty clear that in this example, Mr. Danker was at best on the fringe of the filmmakers’ intended audience.

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