Enjoying USE OF WEAPONS; been thinking a bit more about the role of character development in SF

51qES5r-5cL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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.

P.S. If you want to receive infrequent (fewer than once per month) reminders about my public appearances and book release-type things, then sign up here for my mailing list.

Finally reading one of these Iain M. Banks sci-fi novels

51qES5r-5cL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been intermittently trying to get into the Culture novels for years now. The first time I picked one up was probably in college, and that was also the first of many times that I read the first ten pages of one of these books and said to myself, “This is complicated, confusing, and curiously unemotional, and I’m really not feeling it” and then tossed it into a corner until the library eventually recalled it from me.

However, the streak is finally broken!

Yesterday, I checked out Player of Games from the SF digital library, and now I’m pretty sure that I’m actually going to complete it. Which is good. These always felt like the kind of novels that I ought to enjoy, even when I wasn’t actually enjoying it.

Part of the problem was probably just a lack of trust in the author. During the first twenty pages of the book, it’s mostly set-up, and I never had sufficient trust that an actual story was going to agglomerate out of the mass of arcane setting details.

But now that one has occurred, I have to say that I’m impressed. The problem that Banks sets himself is one of the oldest ones in SF: When your characters live in a far-future utopia, what kind of stories are left to be told?

And Banks has created one of the most utopian of utopias: a galaxy-spanning civilization that’s ruled by benevolent machine intelligences who let people pretty much do whatever they want; a world where people can be anything, have anything, look like anything, do anything, and live for damn near forever.

My impression is that most of the Culture novels are about people from this civlization, the Culture, butting up against other not-so-enlightened civilizations that surround them, but I’m not sure yet, since I haven’t read any of those novels. Anyway, that’s definitely the case with this one: it’s about one of the galaxy’s top game-players (think the Gary Kasparov of this galaxy) being dispatched to an empire in another galaxy that is entirely organized around a game called Azad (which, by the way, is the Hindi/Urdu/Farsi/etc word for ‘Free’).

So far, the character story is a bit thin: it’s the typical bit about the ennui of the immortal. But the universe is lush and filled with interesting things. There’s a liveliness to life in the Culture that is at odds with the world-weariness of the main character: people want things. Even the main character wants things, even if he doesn’t quite know what they are. There are stakes, even if they’re only in terms of things like reputations. Anyway, I am enjoying it, and I haven’t even gotten to the ‘interacting with aliens’ part of it yet.