Bad Characterization in The Scifi of Big Ideas – Who Gives A Crap, Really?

May 26, 2012 · Posted in Art & Entertainment, Books & Comics 

Charles Stross has turned out to be one of my favorite scifi writers from the last few years, and his rant about the scifi of big ideas made me like the dude even more. This is a thing that has started to annoy me more and more lately – whinging about bad characters in books, where the main character is obviously The Idea or the setting.

Stross’ rant is quite long, but Warren Ellis did a good job of digging out its core message:

…those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi’s brilliant “The Quantum Thief” — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That’s a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in “Schismatrix” (which looked as if nobody appreciated it for a couple of decades), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He’s currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he’d need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards.

So what’s at the root of this problem? Why are the innovative and rigorously extrapolated visions of the future so thin on the ground and so comprehensively ignored?

…We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it…

I very much grew with the Sci-Fi of Big Ideas when I was a kid in the 80’s – Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Sagan, Niven, Anderson etc., with a heavy dose of Bradbury’s pulp fiction and Stanislav Lem’s satire and weird thrown in – so maybe I’m biased, maybe it’s somehow weirdly uncommonly easy for me to accept that a setting or a single idea can be the main character of the story instead of the puny humans. Nowadays it seems to be somehow in vogue to diss Clarke and his contemporaries, and to that stuff I’d just want to say “fuck you, hipsters”.

Of course I want to read stories where the characters are believable enough that they don’t break the suspension of disbelief, but if the story’s Sci-Fi Idea is good enough and well enough introduced, I’m very much willing to look past the cardboard cutouts that stand for the characters. I think a stereotypical example of this is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which was the most intellectually stimulating sci-fi series I’ve read in my adult life so far (at around 2008-2009 or thereabouts). Whenever I try and start gushing about it, invariably the sci-fi fan I’m talking to goes “yeah, oh my god, the characters were so terrible.”

…yeah, the characters were utterly horrid “ideas with a cutout human mask on”, but who the fuck cares, when for me reading the book for a half an hour lead into two hours of learning about new concepts and stuff that I found extremely interesting and relevant? I literally kept my iPhone with the Wikipedia open on my nightstand when I was reading those books, and sometimes I realized that in a given evening I had spent thrice the amount of time researching areology, political theory, hydrology, climatology, sociology or bloody Brechtian political theatre than reading the novel. I have to say that reading this book and the resulting research has affected my political views and really expanded the way how I think on a range of things. But the books must be crap, because the characters are horrid, am I rite?

It is of course the problem that in order to be hard nowadays sci-fi has to be a lot more subtle than in the mid 20th century. Atomic rockets, weird planets and jetpacks are not going to cut it anymore since high technology has become far more human, everyday, subtle, psychological and even spiritual in some sense. You can’t hit the sense of wonder with the blunt instrument of a spaceship, you’ll have to sneak in with the quantum cryptography vs. human perception, reality and privacy of The Quantum Thief, the essentially disposable or duplicable bodies and personalities of Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs books, or the visions of a cosmic scale Singularity of Stross’ Accelerando. (And to be clear, I’m not using these as examples of bad characterization, just the books that I think are quality modern hard sci-fi.) The hard sci-fi of today is not about external discovery, it’s about internal development and the expansion and questioning of mind, thinking and consciousness – not in the hippie way of the 70’s, although they were ahead of the time in that, but in an everyday way. Cyberpunk is not hand-buzzsaws and commando strikes to 80’s corporate towers, it’s goddamn banal. We are living the cyberpunk now, and the modern hard sci-fi is about inner spaces, not outer. For me the wake-up call was an article about Philip K. Dick, a writer whom I got to appreciate only when I was older, in which they pointed out that he predicted the internet era and the future far more precisely than any of his known contemporaries. Yeah, I’ve set my “TV” on “low-gossip”: my feeds don’t have any news about reality shows.

All of aforementioned, plus the Mars trilogy, gave me a mental kick in the nuts that felt very much like the hard sci-fi of the olden times.

I don’t know, maybe now that the sci-fi has ascended from the ghetto to the “real” literature, there are more demands to meet the requirements of the so called higher literature, but I don’t really buy that. I think sci-fi fans should adjust their mental TV set to remember that there is the Sci-Fi of Stories, People and Adventure, and then there’s the Sci-Fi of Big Ideas, where the protagonist is the idea or the setting, and the characters are just ephemera. In the ideal world these are combined, but the next time I hear someone bitching about characters in a story that lit up my brain with ideas like a Christmas tree, I’ll whack them on the top of their head with the Mars trilogy omnibus.

I guess every sci-fi fan has had the experience of watching a film with an engineering type of a person who keeps going about how bullets, vacuum, zero-G, physics etc. doesn’t work like that, and although they are probably right, sometimes they totally spoil or miss the fact that as a whole, the story is great and it works well enough. A case in point, look at all the bitching about In Time – of course the science and the situation as stipulated in the movie makes no sense, but the story is not about how society became like that, or how the technology works. I see this bitching about the characters not being fully rounded as the other side of the coin of that engineer-bitching.



4 Responses to “Bad Characterization in The Scifi of Big Ideas – Who Gives A Crap, Really?”

  1. Dare on May 26th, 2012 21:05

    Amen, brother!

    (… says someone who’s been known to bitch about poor science and poor characterization both. But actually when the writer thinks big enough that shit doesn’t matter. Greg Egan & Kim Stanley Robinson <3 <3 <3)

    ((Actually neither lack of characterization (Incandescence) nor science (Dune) really bugs me, since then it's obvious the characters/science are not the point. It's only when someone fails when attempting to write "real" characters (hello Alastair Reynolds) or "real" science (hello writers of Sunshine) that one gets annoyed.))

  2. Doug S. on September 18th, 2013 04:30

    I didn’t like Red Mars. At all. It bored me to tears. I simply do not understand what anyone sees in that book.

    (And I liked Permutation City!)

  3. brightsidecrossing on September 18th, 2013 04:30

    It’s only when someone fails when attempting to write “real” characters (hello Alastair Reynolds) or “real” science (hello writers of Sunshine) that one gets annoyed.))

    Bingo… You don’t need well-rounded characters for their own sake, but the literary ineptitude of Asimov (and recently Doctorow and numerous others) makes one wonder how much better the book might have been if it had been in more capable literary hands. But I imagine it gets harder and harder to master multiple disciplines to master multiple disciplines.

  4. Janos on September 18th, 2013 06:56

    Doug: Well, I made my case for the Mars books in the post. It’s not so much the story of the books themselves for me than the ideas the books explored and gave rise to. I was just thinking about the Mars books the other day, and how the further reading they evoked actually nudged how I view politics and economy to a noticeable degree. Starting with the fact that my debut novel will be published by a spefi publishing co-op. 🙂

    Read as just a story, they may not be that gripping, but enter the big ideas…

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