For some reason Greg Egan's work always inspires me to think more deeply about SF and literature. I used his Schild's Ladder in a paper on post-human gender in 2007 and I'll be using his short fiction in a paper on Suspension of Disbelief in 2009 (based largely on this review I did for Strange Horizons). Now I'm thinking about science fiction and characterization, which ties in with my thoughts on Stephen Baxter's Flood, a discussion of which is here and my review of which is here.
In my review of Incandescence, I mentioned that it is at heart a novel about science. In my previous post I mentioned that as such, it doesn't really have much in the way of characterization or stunning prose. It has a heck of a plot that's contrived to show off science: its importance and how it can bring joy and meaning to our lives.
Now I'm asking myself: could this book be written in such a way as to include all those things? Leaving aside the somewhat trivial matter of prose style, let's focus on characterization. Could this story work with fully-realized, three-dimensional characters?
The thing is, one of the hallmarks of good characterization is character growth, usually in the form of some sort of emotional realization/epiphany. Nick Mamatas wonderfully sums up this approach to a novel:
Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a "slice of life" featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as "I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else."For the curious, the rest of that paragraph, mocking the literati describing a novel, continues, :
Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles.I think this is the sort of thing that Niall Harrison was pushing back against when he said, in the Flood discussion:
I do think asking if we can’t “have both” ideation and characterization is a bit of a red herring. Obviously, it’s perfectly possible to have both, since the elements of fiction are not a zero-sum game, but that doesn’t mean both have to be present to allow us to describe a book as good. I’m mildly allergic to arguments based on class properties, I think. So far as I’m concerned, a story that foregrounds ideation over (a certain kind of) characterization is no more inherently a failure (or a success) than a story that foregrounds (a certain kind of) characterization over ideation is inherently a success (or a failure); and stories that have both are not inherently superior to stories that only have one.(Now I feel bad for citing Niall when he's not around to defend himself. However, that's the price he pays for spending a holiday week in Wales with good friends, books, and food. Thpppth!)
The thing is, Egan's characters in Incandescence do grow, but their growth is intellectual, not emotional. I wonder if in the common view of "characterization" the mainstream has ruled out intellectual concerns in favor of emotional ones. Rakesh, Paramthan, Roi and Zak all have perfectly satisfying internal lives, pursuing and discovering knowledge. For many humans, that is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable description of their lives. For some, that is much closer to their real internal state than the sort of suburban angst for which "mainstream" literature is famous.
Basically what I'm asking is: would it be legitimate for us to conclude that some sf is just as good at characterization as any other branch of literature if you allow that intellectual revelations are just as satisfying and legitimate as emotional ones?
The other thing is that I feel that a certain kind of character has been legislated against in the annals of literature: the un-angsty scientist. That is, the scientist who is basically at peace with themselves and their fellow human beings (or aliens), for whom the life of the mind is their primary life. They may have minor personality conflicts with those around them, and they may think deeply about the philosophical consequences of what they do, but they don't spend much time ruminating about their childhood, repressing anger with their spouse, or getting into screaming matches with their siblings. They have more important things to do, which things probably revolve around the plot of the book. I think many, if not most, real people in this universe have the capability of putting aside less pressing concerns, even emotional ones, if there is a real crisis at hand. I would argue that they should not a priori be labeled "two-dimensional" for doing so.
This is not to say that many sf heroes are not made of cardboard: many are. No one is looking for deep introspection--emotional, philosophical or intellectual--from Kimball Kinnison of Doc Smith's Lensmen (and I refuse to let Stephen Baxter off the hook for his randomly-acting-info-dumping characters). There is likely no real person in this world who would be described as similar to Mr. Kinnison. But simply because a character is figuring out things about the universe instead of things about their mistress shouldn't be an automatic disqualification from being a "well-rounded character." Some real people are really like that.
Edited to add something I realized as I was writing a reply to a comment on this post: Sometimes I think literary people don't think real scientists/engineers are real people. For instance, I've heard people say: "this character is completely unrealistic" at which point I would have to refrain from saying: "but she reminds me so much of myself." I've heard that some authors get the same reaction; they model a character on someone they know, then hear from critics saying that the character is obviously fantastic/impossible. Maybe it all comes down to execution, or maybe some readers refuse to admit that real people exist who think and feel differently than they do.
Or am I just making excuses now?