Harlan Ellison once said, in an interview with Frederik Pohl, "Flowers for Algernon strikes directly to the core of what is wrong with most science fiction. There are no people in the stories. We are very strong on gadget, we are very strong on theory and concept, but we have yet to create our Gatsby, our Ahab, Emma Bovary, Huckleberry Finn."
Is it an overgeneralization to say that many SF&F authors give human behavior short shrift? No, not simply behavior, but human character — a sense of how people are, what they do and do not do, and why. I lay no claim to being a master of this art, only to sensing just how tough it can be to write a sentence that will make someone else nod with recognition.
It has been some decades since Ellison made that statement, and between then and now it's not clear to me how much SF&F have upped their games in terms of character. With SF, the gadgeteering has changed to reflect the times — we now spend more time writing about variations on the Internet than we do warp drive or what have you — but there still seems little sense that the "people problem" has received proper attention.
Memorable characters from given SF&F works — rather than the works themselves, or the conceits of those works — are fairly rare. From my experience: Gandalf, Frodo and Bilbo; Paul Atreides; Gulliver Foyle; Ender (despite my misgivings about his book generally); Slippery Jim diGriz; John the Savage; Winston Smith; a smattering of others. (The lack of women in that list is distressing to me, but "SF characters" and "women" apparently constitute a very small Venn overlap.)
But most of the really significant figures out of SF&F that have come our way have come from other media. We all know Captain Kirk (or Picard, or Sisko); we all know the T-800; most of us know Ellen Ripley. I suspect this is because a broadly successful SF movie has to work as a movie, too — that it has provide at least some modicum of emotional engagement with the audience. With literary SF it's easier to skip the character part of the story and go straight to the environment or the technology — to become, in short, more theoretical than practical.
Bad writing in general seems more interested in theory rather than practice, and bad writers are the same way. They are more interested in supplying the reader with proof (in the form of a fiction, no less) of their potted notions about people. I mentioned in a previous post a review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth wherein the critic (James Wood) noted that the problem with characterization in fiction today is how they are increasingly being depicted as collections of facts, eccentricities, tics and enumerations. The characters in such stories exist more as outward expressions of theories of human behavior, not as examples of actually-observed humanity. The nadir of this sort of thing is Ayn Rand stamping her feet and saying that her characters are examples of how humanity should be, which makes me wonder a) where that "should" comes from and b) what would happen afterwards, but we don't need to go down that far to see how such projection is troubling.
The most striking thing about any book that sports good observation of human behavior is how those observations are that much more out of life itself and not other books. I suspect one of the reasons many SF&F authors fall down on this count is because their pool of examples for same consist mainly of other works of SF&F which in turn commit the same mistakes.
I'm trying to balance my criticism between what amounts to making a snob's argument and exhorting people to get out of their bubbles. I feel more and more strongly that good SF and fantasy will thrive that much more based on how well the author does not depend entirely on the existing and previous generation of work in the same category for a model. I've said it before, but it bears repeating here: when do we get SF&F that is more in the vein of Hans Fallada, Robert Musil, Graham Greene, Jean Rhys, and so many other folks who put great characters on the page?
It's possible to go one's entire career in SF&F without ever hearing those names, let alone reading their books. Not because people are idiots and read too many comic books, etc., but because there just doesn't seem to be a sense that such a thing is important. There's no urgency to the idea that a genre is not a dead end, but also not the only road to walk. The first time you really see how and why another writer does something so radically differently from you or your peers, it's impossible to leave it behind.
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