Sunday, January 13, 2008


Reading my way through the stories on the preliminary Nebula ballot, I was struck with a thought. Although I enjoy a variety of SF subgenres -- humor (Connie Willis), sociological extrapolation (Bruce Sterling), metafiction (John Kessel, sometimes), space opera, hard SF, soft SF, high-viscosity SF (in Mike Flynn's wonderful term) -- what I really want from my SF is not so much hard science as hard humanism.

Hard SF works to supply scientific extrapolation that is believable within the parameters of what we think we know about how the universe actually functions. Hard SF is concerned with how things work. What I want is fiction whose characters are believable within the parameters of what we think we know about how human beings actually function. I want SF concerned with how human behavior works.

And very often, I don't find it. Characters are too sketchy to be believable. Or they behave in ways that may be required by the plot but don't ring true to me. They are too good or too villainous or too competent or too all-knowing or too heroic or too stoic. Nobody is any of these things all the time, and so characters who are, don't seem real to me and thus violate the tenets of Hard Humanism. On the other hand, writers whose characters are both consistent enough to be identifiable AND complex enough to have varying moods and behaviors, sometimes admirable and sometimes not, running on their own quirky individualism -- such characters can, for me, carry even the most recycled plot. Ursula LeGuin, for one, is superb at such characters. Shevek! Estraven! Owen Pugh! Yoss!

LeGuin is not, of course, the only writer who can create such multi-dimensional characters. So can some of the writers I mentioned above, which is why I like to read them. Such "hard humanism" wrters are worth any number of attacking aliens, intricate robots, or FTL starships.
To me, anyway.


Cameron Lewis said...

I also greatly prefer reading stories that feature complex characters. I wonder if some authors are scared off by the notion that one reader's "complexity" is another's "inconsistency." (To me, being inconsistent is part of being human. That decisions are often influenced by mood or the heat of the moment doesn't make them stochastic.)

Steven Francis Murphy said...

Can I say, "Amen?"

I think you probably summed up in a blog entry, more or less, what I look for when I read anything.

I'm starting to sound like a brown noser. I've not found a stitch of anything to disagree with yet.

S. F. Murphy

Ben Payne said...

Nice post.

And, as luck would have it, also a good description of why I enjoy your own work.

Ben Payne

Ken Schneyer said...

It's an odd coincidence, but you posted this meditation just a few days after I began reading Dynamic Characters. I agree with Granfalloon: this is one of the reasons I enjoy reading your own fiction.

"Character-driven fiction" is what nearly all the SF editors nowadays say they want. Are they asking for it but not getting it? Or is their definition of it different?

In the non-SF fiction that I read -- Piercy, Chabon, Atwood, Irving -- the characters are as rich and three-dimensional as you could want, and occasionally those books are SF.

But a few days earlier you pondered the definition of SF itself. I notice that no one's definition of SF (as distinguised from other genres) seems to include a "character" element. Either it's about science, or it's about extrapolation from natural law, or it's about the future -- and a virtuoso like LeGuin can take any of those things and make them be about character.

But I find, when I set myself to think up a premise that is SF or fantasy, I have to fight like the devil to think of a rich character to go with it. Whereas when I think of the character first, sometimes the SF premise comes along for the ride.