Friday, October 24, 2008

More Thoughts on Incandescence


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?


16 comments:

David B. Ellis said...


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."


I completely agree. In my opinion, Egan is very effective at characterization. Both in the incredibly challenging feat of portraying posthumans and in depicting normal (if highly intellectual) people in the near future. DISTRESS and TERANESIA being good examples of books doing the later.

Tim Walters said...

This is fine as far as it goes, but a well-rounded character is also one that, by the end of the book, you feel like you know personally. Think Quentin Compson or Harry Angstrom. Few science-fiction characters are up to this standard, and accepting intellectual growth as well as emotional growth won't change that.

That said, the novel of ideas is just as valid as the novel of character, and I have no problem with SF books, such as DIASPORA (I haven't read INCANDESCENCE), that merely sketch their characters, as long as the sketch is deft, and the rest of the painting is a wonderful landscape.

What I'm less crazy about is books where the writer neglects the SF aspects for character aspects, but isn't very good at the latter. To continue the analogy, these are like those paintings you see at convention art shows where the artist has placed a character in futuristic dress front and center, but hasn't quite learned to do figure drawing yet.

Exhibit A: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. A great scenario, but way too much space is taken up by the characters' tedious political and romantic intrigues.

Karen Burnham said...

David - Thanks! Good point, especially regarding the challenge of depicting post-humans. I thought "Schild's Ladder" was also particularly effective at this.

Tim-That's an interesting rubric, one I hadn't heard before. However, under that measurement I'd be forced to say that Egan is a "better" character writer than Michael Chabon, since I felt like I know Roi from "Incandescence" better than Grady Tripp, protagonist of Chabon's "Wonder Boys." Roi is certainly more similar to real people I know, but I don't know anyone like the aimlessly-wandering-adulterous-almost-failed-novelist-English-professor Tripp.

Sometimes I think literary people don't think real scientists/engineers are real people.

But you're absolutely spot on about authors sacrificing ideas for characters, then doing characters badly. That's always grating. (Although I'd say that with KSR the political ramblings *are* the point, and everything else exists to support them.)

Tim Walters said...

I think I was unclear--I didn't mean that a well-written character should remind me of someone I already know, but rather that after reading the book I should feel like I know the character as well as someone I've met. Chabon wins over Egan here--Egan's characters are types I know quite well, but they don't come alive as fully individual people (which is not a problem given the kind of book he's writing, but that's a different matter).

Sometimes I think literary people don't think real scientists/engineers are real people.

Have you read The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers? If not, I highly recommend it. It features a detailed examination of a scientist at work, and is probably the most seamless fusion of character and idea I know of.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis is also said to be a good account of the process of discovery, but I haven't read it.

Although I'd say that with KSR the political ramblings *are* the point

This is a sad thought, but probably a true one. I want to like KSR but haven't managed it yet.

Jonathan M said...

Karen -- The door to such thinking is ajar. The psychoanalytical process, so beloved of mainstream novels, is an entirely intellectual one. It is simply that the object of cognition is the self rather than the outside world.

Watts' Blindsight and a number of Egan's short stories fudge this slightly by making the SFnal fact about the outside world that the book explores the self and I think the dividends are incredibly rich (in fact, given how much cool stuff is coming out of modern psychology, I find it quite annoying that there's less psychological hard-SF).

As for why the self has to be involved... well I think it's a fluke of history. It's the kind of thing that genre conspiracy theorists rave about but you can probably trace the primacy of the self as a subject of art back to the classical period.

I suspect that the reason for this fluke is simple : in a pre-psychological age, general 'facts' about the self were accessible to all and so they rendered plays accessible. By contrast scientific and philosophical facts were less accessible and, to be blunt, they are better served by logic and numbers than pretty language.

So yes, I think that things could well have been different but whatchagunnado?

I think there is some genuine psychological meat to Incandescence but I think it's either completely hidden (as in the case of the humans) OR it's made incredibly public and explained away (in the case of the aliens). So yes there's change in the characters but I'm not sure that they constitute great characterisation, at least in the traditional sense

Ted said...

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.

It's not uncommon in fiction workshops for an author to respond to criticisms about plausibility by saying, "But that's how it really happened." Is this a valid defense? It's hard to say.

We've all heard that truth is stranger than fiction. We want fiction to be plausible, even thought reality often isn't, and in a similar fashion, we want characters to behave in ways that are comprehensible to us, even though people in real life often behave incomprehensibly. One goal that fiction can strive for is to make a reader understand how a person could behave in a certain way, even if the reader never understood such behavior before. But that's not necessarily a goal for all writers, all the time.

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks Tim, Jonathan & Ted! Many apologies for my delay in responding; a nasty head cold prevented me from thinking intelligently for a couple of days there.

Tim- I think I took your point and then wandered away with it--you're right, it depends on the character as written, not their similarity to people you know.

Let me go back to an earlier point of yours: the novel of character vs. the novel of ideas. I've been trying to find a way around this dichotomy. Certainly many novels of character are devoid of interesting ideas, and vice versa. However, shouldn't a truly excellent novel be good at both (as we would classically expect one to be good at both prose and characterization)?

You say: "That said, the novel of ideas is just as valid as the novel of character, and I have no problem with SF books... that merely sketch their characters, as long as the sketch is deft, and the rest of the painting is a wonderful landscape."

Sometimes it seems readers think that asking an sf book to have both awesome ideas and great characters to be somehow unfair. Is it? Does foregrounding character necessarily mean ideas won't be developed in enough depth? Sometimes I feel like saying "It's OK to have 2-D characters because the ideas are so nifty" is simply an example of special pleading (I think this is the fundamental question I'm really struggling with). But then I want to define characters such as Egan's as well-done, substituting intellectual pursuits for emotional ones: also special pleading?

Karen Burnham said...

Jonathan - I love the idea of psychological hard sf, and having loved "Blindsight," I sure hope we see more of it. Also, as I'm taking this neuroscience class, I'm realizing that the brain is pretty much stranger than we can imagine.

However, you say "So yes there's change in the characters but I'm not sure that they constitute great characterisation, at least in the traditional sense." It's that "traditional sense" that I'm challenging here: is it an appropriate aesthetic to use for sf? Can it be adapted in a way more suitable? Are we all just whining when we say it shouldn't apply to us? (Am I using the word "aesthetic" correctly?) I'm still trying to think it through...

Karen Burnham said...

Ted - that's a good point. Just like journalism, fiction sometimes has to strive to make life more rational than it really is. It can help us make sense of the world we live in, no matter how "irrational" real life tends to be.

So much of sf has the goal of highlighting new ideas and perspectives instead of explaining characters. Is the fact that most of the characterization takes place behind the foregrounded ideation enough to justify the 2-D accusation? Or is the characterization still legitimate, it's just handled differently than the "mainstream" traditionally does?

Am I addicted to rhetorical questions today? Apparently. Can I blame this tic on residual effects of the head cold? I hope so.

Tim Walters said...

However, shouldn't a truly excellent novel be good at both (as we would classically expect one to be good at both prose and characterization)?

Sure--a truly excellent novel is good at everything--but I don't think "good" always means "detailed" or "naturalistic", it just means "appropriate". There's a certain tension between detailed characterization and well-explored ideas--there's only so much you can stuff into one book--and I think it's fine if one comes more to the foreground than the other. The aforementioned Powers novel does a virtuoso job of making the characters' lives embody the ideas without sacrificing naturalism, and the book has a wonderful jam-packed quality because of it, but I don't think every book should be that way.

Rather than setting up an ideal that all books should strive for, I would ask of individual SF books: would this be improved by more detailed characterization? There are at least some with minimal characterization (Animal Farm, The City and the Stars) for which the answer from me is a resounding "no"--adding more character detail to those books would be like adding color and texture to one of Picasso's one-line drawings of a bull. It would miss the point. And any aesthetic that doesn't regard those as being outstanding books of their kind is not one that I'm going to find very congenial, although of course one might reasonably enough lack interest in their kind.

Karen Burnham said...

Tim - I like what you're saying. Some books do both well, and some don't necessarily need to.

Let me apply it: "Galveston" by Sean Stewart is an excellent blend of character and idea, like you say about Powers. OTOH "1984" would be ill-served by deep/naturalistic characterization.

"Incandescence:" Roi, Zak and the other aliens are as fleshed out as they need to be, more would be less in their case; it would take focus away from how science matters to them. Rakesh is OK but could use a little more motivation. Parantham remained a cipher, probably the only significant failing of characterization in the book.

That's a good way to think of things; I'll see how it works out moving forward.

gareth.rees said...

Greg Egan indicated (in an interview with Carlos Pavon) that his approach to characterization in works like Diaspora and Incandescence is deliberately one of estrangement:

"Some writers are so obsessed with creating characters that readers can “relate to” — even when they're living in virtual reality, or a thousand years in the future — that they pretend that nothing important will change. I didn't want to do that. With the power to reshape themselves as much as they like, no one can seriously expect the inhabitants of VR to spend century after century just imitating us. And once they stop doing that, a lot of things that are central to our lives, right now, will either vanish, or come to be seen in a very different light."

(A harsh critic might say that this decision is Egan's way of downplaying his weaknesses.) It's clear from books like Distress and Quarantine that he can portray moderately interesting characters. However, there are thousands of writers who can do that, but as far as I know only Egan who can make the discovery of general relativity into a work of art, so I'm very grateful that he's chosen this path.

My own review of Incandescence is here.

Tim Walters said...

While Egan is completely right in that quote, I would argue that it's independent of the character/idea dichotomy. There's no reason, for example, that he couldn't write a Ulysses-style detailed examination of one "day" in the everyday life of a VR dweller. If done well, it would be quite a tour-de-force, although probably a formidable one. John Clute's Appleseed is the closest example to this sort of total immersion that I can think of offhand.

But Egan is already doing something unique and excellent, which is surely all one can ask of a writer.

Karen Burnham said...

Gareth - great quote, thanks for posting it!

Let me ruminate/ramble: I generally agree with Tim that the quote is addressing a separate issue than the "character/idea" divide. However, it is germaine to the overall idea of how we evaluate "characterization." As Tim pointed out, one metric is that we feel like we know the person after reading the book; is that a legitimate desire if the person in question is a VR contruct who literally shares none of our formative experiences? I'm tempted to side with Egan here and say that's not particularly reasonable.

However, then I'm struck by the fact that I often do feel like I know Egan's characters - one of my favorites being Tchicaya from "Schild's Ladder," even though he's only marginally human. I did think the psychological ramifications of people lacking gender would have been interesting to develop, but that wasn't Egan's focus in that book. (Would it contribute to the overall primacy of intellect over emotion that he portrays? Hmmm.)

Writing the truly alien, whether it be aliens from another planet or humans in a million years must be unimaginably difficult. We only have knowledge of one psychology: ours. Plus, you don't want to depict a character so random & different that the reader can't understand anything about what they do.

Some may accuse Egan's characters of being insufficient because they tend to act intellectually instead of emotionally. As I argued earlier, I think that's completely legitimate; probably even more so for humans in a computer-mediated future.

I'd be interested to read someone's version of Tim's suggestion: "Ulysses" from the POV of a post-human consciousness. However, please don't mention "Appleseed" again... I tried to review it when I was just starting out, and now I get unpleasant flashbacks whenever I think of it. It's the bad acid trip of my younger days.

Niall said...

"Now I feel bad for citing Niall when he's not around to defend himself."

Ha! Now I shall wreak my terrible revenge.

Or merely ask, on a related note, what you make of this.

Karen Burnham said...

Niall - Damn you, that's quite a bit of revenge right there.

So, Zadie Smith's comments on "Netherlands" exactly illustrate my point about the constraints on character-focused mainstream fiction. Between her essay and some of Chabon and Lethem's comments, maybe in a generation or so we'll finally see a shift away from that proscribed style; I think that would be a very positive development.

"Remainder" sounds like it is going down a very different road. It sounds almost like New Wave sf, although its purpose is almost certainly metafictional instead of sfnal. It sounds fascinating, and I'll keep my eye out for a copy.

In regards to character, I notice that McCarthy is apparently doing something that I've also noticed in authors like Haruki Murakami: the un-named narrator. I think that must be a deliberate choice to dehumanize the central character in some way, to more forcefully reject the almost narcissistic tendencies of mainstream lit. It's a little different than what sf tends to do, which is to less self-consciously shove the characters into the background relative to the ideas, but it sounds like a matter of degree instead of kind.

Maybe these "Necronaut" guys will help to continue chipping away at boundaries between "literature" and "genre," but as always I suspect it will be a long process.