Where's the sci-fi with actual characters?
August 18, 2009 2:04 PM Subscribe
What are some or how can one best find science-fiction novels that are good by general literary standards?
Bemoaning the disappointment I've repeatedly endured at the hands of science fiction is, to those who know me well enough, a well-worn leitmotif. You'd think I'd be at least as smart as children who refrain from touching red-hot burners twice, but no: I pick up a sci-fi novel, more often than not get burned by it, and no sooner have the blisters subsided than I'm back at the shelf. My problem perhaps reduces to desire for speculative stories featuring actual characters. It's not that the sci-fi novels I've read are literally missing invoked human (or alien, or robot) entities; it's that they present these entities as lists of traits rather than as nuanced, thinking (as distinct from simply speaking), changing beings whose lives extend beyond the page.
I've found this disease pervasive in and crippling to the genre, but the diehard fans I talk to don't seem to notice it. And if they do notice it, they don't mind. I once read a forum-dweller grumble about his wish that sci-fi's lack of character depth just stop being considered a weakness already. At a panel, I heard one veteran sci-fi novelist pronounce that, in the genre, character is necessarily subordinated to speculation. But can't character and speculation sit on the same tier? This may seem a matter of wanting to have my cake and eat it too, but I'd say I simply want to eat my cake in the context of an actual meal. Isn't complaining that weak characterization is regarded as a flaw like complaining that a computer's inability to accept input is regarded as flaw? You can junk speculation, plot, aesthetics, form, comedy and tragedy and your work will still come out a lot better than if you'd played loose with character.
Beyond science fiction, I suppose I'm generally long for novels of ideas whose ideas don't displace their people. Perhaps no genre is flexible enough to provide this combination, and I'd do better to camp out in the categorical borderlands.