I started reading the next book in the Culture series and I am liking it a lot. You know what I’ve noticed about a lot of hard SF books? They can actually be very light on the plot. In many cases, they’re little more than travelogues. This was particularly the case with the two Stross books I read recently: Neptune’s Children and Saturn’s Brood. In both cases, there was some loose objective at the end of the journey, but most of the time we were just walking around and looking at shit. I wonder whether this is an inheritance from Utopian literature. Many of those early utopias were pretty much all about seeing the sights. It’s funny, though, that a genre which pays so much lip service to plot can actually have so little of it. But then, the SF genre is full of ironies like that. It also pays lots of lip service to character development, but frequently the character struggles are pretty anemic. For instance, in the last Banks novel, the dude was, I guess, motivated by a sense of boredom at the possibility of game-playing, but then he starts playing for higher stakes and, well, he’s happier, I guess? All of his personal development is very much.
But that’s fine, because in an SF novel, everything carries more meaning, because everything is purposefully constructed. In a realist novel, you can choose details in a manner that weights the scenes with meaning. For instance, you can have a woodpecker in a tree, pecking away during a pivotal scene, and it’ll mean…something. But it’s also just a woodpecker.
Whereas in an SF novel, nothing has any literal value. These planets and these starships and these robots and these weird board games don’t exist. They are pure image; pure construction. And there is some strange way, that I can’t quite articulate, in which the manipulation of those symbols takes the place of character development. For instance, PLAYER OF GAMES was about a vicious empire that used a very complex board game to figure out who was going to govern it. It was a novel about a civilization that had become very invested in a two-dimensional picture of itself, and about the ways in which reality had come to resemble the picture just as much as the picture resembled reality. Over the course of the novel, strange things start to happen, and as the game begins to change, so does the empire. And that is such a big and very complex and malleable symbol that it doesn’t leave much room for character development. Basically, in science fiction novels, the world often changes so much that it would be a bit confusing if the characters also changed.
Incidentally, when I tried to explain this idea on Twitter, another author got very mad at me. They were incensed that I’d implied science fiction doesn’t have as much character development as literary fiction. Which is not quite what I’m saying. Some SF has fairly good character development (for instance, A Scanner Darkly or Richard Morgan’s Market Forces). But I do think that it’s possible for a science fiction novel to be very good even if it doesn’t prioritize character development. And I don’t think that’s a slur on the genre. There are many different ways in which a book can be good, and each book doesn’t need to be good in all the possible ways: it just needs to be good in at least one way.
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