Cake or Death

Charles Stross posted up a little item based on a Mind Meld on SFSignal and this particular quote stood out for me:

In fact, those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character.

My first reaction was an unmitigated, “Well, can’t I have both?” It seems to be a running theme with SF, especially hard SF. One can either have grand ideas built on the bleeding edge of scientific theory, or one can have well constructed characters. But you can’t have both. And you certainly can’t add-on top anything vaguely resembling literature.

The first time I encountered this phenomenon outside of grumblings about fans was in an essay by Jonathan Lethem which the Village Voice retitled “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction.” The original is hard to find, but references exist here and there’s a lovely exchange about it between Lethem and a David Barnett here. This focused on the awarding of a Nebula to Rendezvous with Rama instead of Gravity’s Rainbow as a fissure point where literature and SF were forever separated.

I remember someone mentioning Rama had all the literary prowess and characterization of a technical manual. This echoed a complaint from a girlfriend upon reading another of Clarke’s books – lovely ideas, but she hated the characters and it made for a boring read. It can be argued Gravity’s Rainbow shares the same problems, but does so in literary language instead of the language of SF, but once again we run into the same issue: why can’t I have good characters too? Why can’t I follow an emotional arc with someone I can relate to on some level? I have a hard enough time relating to the universe as it exists, much less different types of universes.

Choosing to write in a genre does not allow one to abandon the basics of good storytelling. Your novel centered around the unusual processing techniques for combining lunar regolith with carbon nanotubes to create permanent structures on the Moon may dead accurate. And any good material scientist worth his or her salt will appreciate the conundrums posited within. But if I can’t connect with it on a character level…why am I reading it? I can just read the original research.

In the end, I think Ursula K. LeGuin speaks for me in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction through her essay “Science Fiction and Ms. Brown.” She references Virgina Woolf:

“believe that all novels, … deal with character, and that it is to express character – not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved … The great novelists have brought us to see whatever they wish us to see through some character. Otherwise they would not be novelists, but poets, historians, or pamphleteers.”

she then argues there is room for a Ms. Brown in the world of science fiction, and gives me a good touchstone: Do you remember the name of the characters after you have put the book down? If I do my job right, no matter the genre or literary convention, you should remember the character. And that should lead you back into the novel itself. I won’t give in to the false Cake or Death choice.

I’m going to have pie.

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