Science Fiction Repair Shop: A Defect Of Character Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-05-14 14:00:00 No comments

The other day I was talking to a friend, doing my usual back-of-hand-to-forehead routine about SF&F, and out came this bit: "I feel like the whole way we go about exploring ideas in SF and fantasy these days is so depersonalized. Not [just] in the sense that there are no characters, etc., but in the sense that there is none of us, ourselves."

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The first germ of this complaint sprouted back when I read Harlan Ellison's discussion of Charly a/k/a Flowers for AlgernonThe book embodied for him a major, ongoing complaint he'd had about SF — the way the genre had consistently failed to deliver characters worthy of being remembered. Here we have a Paul Atreides, there an Ender Wiggin, but for the most part character in SF is relegated to the back seat, if not the glove compartment, in favor of concept and gadget. It took TV and movies to deliver memorable characters for SF, in big part because you have to go big or go home with such things in those media.

I soon theorized this problem is cyclical. Literary SF&F ought to be well-suited to the exploration of character, but the demands of its creation (read: marketing) shortchange us too often on that possibility. Then the next generation of would-be SF&F authors reads it all, and with vanishingly few exceptions, perpetuates the problem. Fantasy is marginally more often about an intriguing character than SF is, but both are too often starved by lack of influence from writing that is character-driven.

Worse, many SF&F authors assume "character-driven" means "plotless, pretentious drivel", since much of modern literary fiction has become hardened in a way that's just as reactionary and uninventive as the genre fiction it pretends to disdain. They see what's going on in literary fiction right now and, too rightly, find much of it such a windy bore that it isn't worth learning anything from.

All of this I've lamented before, but the most recent bit of insight is into why SF&F isn't more people-driven. The obvious target is the industry end of the equation: SF readers want "action books" and "idea books", not "people books" — never mind that some of the best books in the first two categories are also great books in the third category, if they had examples of same to draw from in the first place.

What's most lacking is the courage to take proper inspiration from outside the genre bubble, and to take it in ways that aren't simply a matter of copying the most obvious external attributes. As a youth, Dostoevsky enjoyed the Gothic thrillers of his day, and even mined their construction and deployment for inspiration, but never failed to enrich them with his larger social and spirital concerns, and the end results were always unmistakably his.

This act of courage, or so I theorize, requires another act of courage to support it — the willingness to go into one's own life and bring back things which are one's own and nothing but, and not to simply mine the rest of the surrounding genre. A work of imagination, especially one in a genre that lays claim to being driven so thoroughly by imagination, needs to embody its intentions as completely as possible.

I come back to this often, if only because I'm now also seeing how little work we do to encourage people to do more than simply imitate the things around them that seems successful. We give them no commercial support structure, certainly, but not much of one outside of that either, no sense of how the cycle of bad work can be broken and replaced with something more inventive.

Tags: Fyodor Dostoevsky Science Fiction Repair Shop characters science fiction storytelling writing