MIND MELD: You Gotta Have Character: Character-Driven Science Fiction Stories With Plenty of Sense of Wonder
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Science Fiction is better known for technology, sense of wonder, and alien landscapes than fully recognized characters. Some SF that emphasizes character does so without engaging in those core elements of SF.
Here’s what our participants had to say:
Human nature is fairly unchanging and relatively easy to predict. For instance, people were acting like idiots several thousand years ago, and will no doubt continue to do so into the unforeseeable future. This is a good thing, because people doing stupid things is the essence of conflict and drama. Conflict and drama make for good stories.
Technology, on the other hand, is a fickle mistress. Video did not kill the radio star. We have no flying cars or personal jet packs. The space race (for Americans, at least) died.
As someone who is finally getting around to formatting my backlist for e-book editions, I can only hope that the human element of the stories stand out more than the technology aspects. Particularly, since I guessed that DOS would exist in the future.
As for examples–I’ve been listening to a lot of short stories on podcast lately via places like Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Escape Pod and PodCastle. Some of my favorites, which I think are good examples of stories that blend both character-driven and a sense of wonder, include pretty much anything Cat Rambo writes, though I was particularly fond of “Long Enough and Just So Long.” James Patrick Kelly’s “Breakaway, Backdown” also impressed me, as did “Ej-Es” by Nancy Kress. David Tallerman’s “Jenny’s Sick” was another good one, as is Nnedi Okorafor’s “The Book of Pheonix (Excerpted from the Great Book)”. Though I think it might start to slip into tech that might seem outdated in the near future, I also really liked Charles Yu’s “Standard Loneliness Package”. In general, other masters of character and timeless sense of wonder are Ursula LeGuin and Eleanor Arnason. You can’t go wrong with either of them.
First and foremost, I’m interested in a story. I want to be entertained. Straight up scientific facts and speculation are awesome, and that’s why we have non-fiction. But if I’m reading fiction, the main way a story engages me is through the characters. If I care about the characters, I care about what happens to them. Subsequently, I care about the science that’s affecting their lives.
Not everyone is a tripped out science geek; however, all people know something about, well, people–and also relationships. Therefore, character-driven science fiction offers a built-in hook to pique readers’ interest in physics, chemistry, biology, etc.
Take me, for example. I was shortsighted enough to wiggle my way out of chemistry in high school. I remember feeling intimidated about having to memorize all of those periodic tables. In hindsight, I basically skipped it for no good reason.
However, I still enjoyed learning about science–just not in a setting where I felt pressured to do so. During that time, my love of science fiction was kicking into high gear. Ever since then, I discovered just how fascinating science (and chemistry!) could be through the character-driven stories I was reading. In turn, I felt more motivated to learn various scientific factoids on my own. I even subscribed to Scientific American for a long time.
Character-driven science fiction stories (along with gripping plots) places the technology and sense of wonder elements into an accessible context. To me, that’s a huge advantage because then the technology grabs me as a reader. Also, I’m betting (hoping?) that many SF authors want readers to actually read the stories rather than skim over highly technical, poorly integrated passages. And if characters and plot are merely hooks on which to hang the technology, why write fiction at all?
Here are a few books that deliver both technology and compelling characters in a satisfying way:
- Alpha by Catherine Asaro features an android heroine who made the idea of artificial intelligence and its ramifications incredibly intriguing (not to mention hot *fans self*).
- In Enemy Hands by KS Augustin got me even more excited about how stars work in the context of a hero and heroine struggling for freedom from a repressive government.
- Manda Benson’s erotic SF story Moonsteed includes some hard elements (and no, I’m not just talking about the hero’s endowment, lovely though it is) that cast the planet Jupiter in a much more interesting light.
- With a uniquely talented heroine and an enigmatic hero, Song of Scarabaeus by Sara Creasy delivers a chilling “It could happen in our own backyard” scenario in her cyberpunk-meets-biopunk space opera.
- Also, Lisa Patiz Spindler shows just how exotic matter can be in The Spiral Path, especially since the heroine’s special heritage grants her the ability to pass between dimensions.
I have always found that the very best SF stories deliver on both character and exploration of the new – which often, but not always** focuses around technology – and/or sense of wonder in a thoroughly satisfying way. But if forced to choose, I would opt for character driven SF over that where technology/sense of wonder predominates–fundamentally, because I believe the heart of fiction lies in character. If I want to explore new ideas and speculate on where technological innovation may lead, then there are scientific journals for me to read and scientific blogs to visit–some of which offer speculation as “out there” as anything one may encounter in science fiction.
If, as I believe, the heart of fiction is character, then the core of science fiction is character and world building. But however marvelous it may be, a world without characters to inhabit it makes for arid reading.
There are other reasons though, why I believe character is essential to great SF. Character driven SF explores the most difficult frontier that we will encounter as a species–what it means to be sentient and/or “human”, no matter how strange the universes a story may traverse. The medium of character also enables us to better explore both the possibilities and ramifications of technology–but in order for that to happen the characters can’t just be cardboard cutouts, coathangers on which to drape new technologies or “out there” events. For the impact of the new to hit home, we have to care about the characters and what is happening to them. And often it is effects on characters that really illustrate the implications and consequences of the new or different.
OK, so on the hard part: restricting myself to just a few of the many great SF stories where the combination of both character and sense of wonder make the story rock!
David Brin’s Sundiver postulates some great ideas, such as the “Vanilla” and “Chocolate” Needles–effectively elevators into space–but primarily that of “uplift”, where galactic societies find and genetically uplift (i.e. engineer) new species into sentience through a system of indenture. What Brin’s book explores, in the guise of a space thriller, is the effect this system can have on the indentured species, which has no or limited rights in terms of its own development. But the reason the effect of uplift indenture matters to us as readers is because of the character Culla, who is from an alien species (the Pring) that is one of those in indentured servitude. As readers, we see Culla’s invidious situation and understand his determination to free his people–even though it results in deception, sabotage, and murder. If, though, we had only experienced Culla in his final role as villain, then our understanding of uplift–and the hostile brutality of the galactic milieu in which humanity (and its “client” chimpanzees and dolphins) find themselves–would have been considerably reduced.
My second example is C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station. The ideas that Cherryh explores in this novel are considerable: the consequences for effective communication of humanity’s dispersal across space-time; how faster-than-light travel might actually work; life extension and genetic engineering; the form of societies that have evolved on FTL space-faring ships as well as space stations; and humanity’s relationship with the first non-human sentient species encountered, the “Downers” of Pell planet. Not just one great scientific idea, but a whole bunch of them tied together in one book–but the reason the book works as fiction is because of the characters and the human dilemmas that knit everything together.
There’s the Konstantin family of Downbelow Station, trying to keep their fragile society and the vulnerable Pell world below safe as war escalates between Earth’s fleet and the Union colonies; and Elene Quen, the spacer who’s living stationside because of her marriage, but learns her family’s ship has been destroyed in the war. Then there’s the Earth fleet captain, Signy Mallory, striving to chart an almost impossible course between integrity and survival, juxtaposed with the brutal conditions of the refugees from destroyed stations, forced into a “Quarantine” zone on Pell station–while planetside, the native “Downers” struggle to come to terms with the violent universe intruding on their world.
Overall, it is the book’s characters and their relationships with each other, as family and lovers, enemies and allies, victims and perpetrators, that make Downbelow Station not just award-winning science fiction, but outstanding fiction.
And taken together, well–that’s what really spins my wheels as a genre enthusiast.
**[For example, although technology such as the ansible--i.e. communication that is faster than light in a universe where space travel still isn't--forms an important backdrop to Ursula le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, what the book explores is possibility around different modes of human sexuality and social organisation.]]
I think that art and life, when you aspire to something greater, require risk. The risk can take many forms. You can risk your life to go to another planet, risk your body by testing a new nanochip, risk your relationships as you insist upon doing the first two despite your partner’s concerns. To me, the story comes from the result of taking that risk.
Sense of wonder often comes from an appreciation seeing characters taking a risk that we might be afraid of ourselves. How many of us are actually willing to drop everything and take a trip in the TARDIS or a ship to Mars, leaving family and friends behind? The exhilaration comes from vicariously experiencing that risk, without having to go through the adverse consequences of wanting to be greater than we are in daily life.
For me, the heart of a story is, do I care? As a reader I need to be emotionally invested in the journey, reactions, risks, rewards and failures experienced by characters. For me, that is what determines whether I actually experience the sense of wonder or not.
- Jack McDevitt’s “The Mission,” originally published in Crossroads (Tor, 2004), juxtaposes the desperation of humanity’s need to survive after a deadly epidemic with the main character’s mourning of a defunct space program as he imagines an aborted trip to Mars. We see the emotional impact of visiting another planet through the loss of the ability to do so.
- Maureen McHugh’s “Presence” in Mothers and Other Monsters (Small Beer, 2005), originally published in F&SF is a wrenching demonstration of the human toll of medical miracles, specifically a trial cure for Alzheimer’s.
- James Tiptree Jr.’s “Beam Us Home,” originally published in Galaxy in 1969, places the horrors of war side by side with the joys of space travel, through the eyes of Hobie, who joins the Air Force to become an astronaut, and gets caught up in war instead.
In all three examples, the human cost, the weighing of risks, the balance between our urge to become more, and the quotidiana that hold us back from doing so are all at the hearts of the stories.
Eleanor Roosevelt is often quoted as saying, “Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, and small minds talk about people.” I get her point; she’s talking about the mindset that manifests in, say, _People Magazine._
But as a writer I see it totally differently. Ideas and “sensawunda” are the foundation of science fiction, but they’re just the start. Plotting turns ideas into story by lining up events in a more or less coherent fashion. But to achieve greatness, a writer has to be able to write about people. Real, rounded, believable people driving the plot and embodying the ideas that distinguish our genre from the rest.
I once threw a very famous technothriller across the room because it had nothing that could be identified as characters. Ideas, check. Plot, big fat check. But when I looked for characters, as in real human beings living amid the tech and the derring-do, I couldn’t find a single one.
That’s rather rare, when I think about it. I believe sf has always done its best to be about both people (of whatever species) and technology. Often, people _are_ technology.
Not every author has paid attention to this, or had the skills for it, but look at the Holy Trinity: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Clarke was the purest scientist, and mostly one remembers the ideas or the science, but then he created HAL the computer in 2001. Asimov was all over everywhere writing about everything–including Robbie the Robot and Dr. Susan Calvin (I, Robot), and the wonderful R. Daneel Olivaw of the Foundation books.
Heinlein was the “people person” of the three. Valentine Michael Smith (Stranger in a Strange Land), for example. Mike (Mycroft) the computer (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress). Podkayne of Mars. A Heinlein novel is loaded with ideas and rich with sensawunda, but it’s first and foremost about the people living in the worlds he’s created.
In the middle distance of the field, there’s Ursula K. LeGuin, of course–notably both the human and the aliens of The Left Hand of Darkness. Vonda N. McIntyre (Dreamsnake, for example: biotech backbone, quintessentially human plot and story). C. J. Cherryh: my favorites of her many memorable characters include Pyanfar of the Chanur cycle, and the exotic mri of the Faded Sun books. Powerful worldbuilding, kickass ideas–and people we remember long after we’ve closed the book.
As we get closer to the present, the list is long enough to take over the whole Mind Meld. I’ll just mention the book I’m reading now: Sara Creasy’s Song of Scarabaeus. Dense, chewy worldbuilding, complex plotting, and characters front and center. Just the way I like them.
I have to admit I have a hard time considering characters as separate from the rest of the story. I can think of stories that have been admirable because of some really nifty thought of concept, but I don’t think any story can really succeed without good characters.
Part of the problem is that there are other — maybe better — places to get mindblowing technology and a transporting sense of wonder. The real discoveries and work that’s being done right now is weirder than most professional fantasists’ imagination, and the quality of science and technology writing is very, very good. Without characters — the human heart in conflict with itself was the way Faulkner put it, though I heard it from George RR Martin — I don’t think we can bring anything to the table that can’t be beaten flat by reality.
Of course, I’m a fan of the stories that have all of it together — wonder, speculation, and the kind of story that you can only really get with characters you remember and care about, with all of them relying on each other. Who doesn’t like to get it all right?
For instance, you can’t have Flowers for Algernon without Charlie Gordon. That character is central to the story and the technological speculation. Same is true of Genly Ai in Left Hand of Darkness and Corwin in Nine Princes in Amber. Rafael Zhang is up there with the best realized characters in traditional, mimetic fiction, and McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang has a bunch of really memorable social and technological bits of coolness too.
Not that the best characters are necessarily the most realistic, or even the most well-rounded. Gaiman’s Other Mother makes Coraline for me.
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