it is an urgent task of contemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things — the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons! — but do not know a single human being. Such books, congested and anxious, resemble the millipede mentioned by Meyrink, which, when it realizes it has a thousand legs, is suddenly unable to move an inch.
The first time I read these words, I couldn't help but think of the same problem facing SF. If anything, SF has this issue, only even more acutely. It has hypotheses about terraforming, quantum computing, faster than light travel, et any number of als, but it has the worst time thinking about how a single genuine human being who is not an authorial stand-in would live with such things. The shining exceptions get little recognition in either SF or mainstream circles, since they break unspoken rules for both domains.
Fantasy, too, has the same problem in a different way. I think back now to a friend telling me about a friend telling him about this fantasy novel's magical system, which he proceeded to recount in mind-numbing detail. Not one word about the story or the characters, which from the sound of it were all tertiary concerns to begin with.
These things don't just happen because character is hard to know and to do well, although that's a big part of it. Modern SF&F marketplaces train their prospective writers out of being interested in such things, both as creators and as consumers. It's become all the more urgent for creators contributing to those fields to get their cues from something other than the most recent (and increasingly inbred) generations of work produced in them. But if they have no curiosity about such things to begin with, it's hard to get them to believe their attention is worth being directed elsewhere in the first place.
Knowledge of the world is not merely a matter of technical information, although enough of it, and provided colorfully enough, can serve as a dandy simulation of same. This is the sort of thing David Foster Wallace did a great deal, but in the end he seemed a victim of his own approach, not a master of it. His work always seemed like distaff SF to me anyway, and not just because of its subject matter but because of its deeply dehumanized flavor. The few authors who make such dehumanization and technocratic use of language and concept work in their favor — J.G. Ballard, for instance, and sometimes Anthony Burgess — have a gift that was developed first in a domain outside of mere curiosity about a given technical subject.
But in the end, there has to be some curiosity about people — what they are like, what they want, and how they tick. The best writers could never get more than a certain distance from that if they tried, but we seem to be training outselves how to not have to get very close in the first place. Nifty stunt, that.