Emotion, SF and SFR
Recently, I tried hunting down part of an interview with the late Isaac Asimov where he essentially said that character development was not necessary (or even warranted!) in a science-fiction story. I don’t mean to single out Asimov but, certainly, his stories are
bankrupt short on the kind of character arcs that, say, romance readers are used to. Then again, so are the characters of many other SF writers, including Lem, (Poul) Anderson, Vance, van Vogt, Clarke, (Alastair) Reynolds, (EE ‘Doc’) Smith, Stross, (Gordon R) Dickson, Vinge…well, the list goes on and on. (And to those who say that there was “no such thing” as character development in them old days, I have one name for you: Henry Kuttner.)
When we say “character development” we, of course, mean emotions—those things that colour a character’s decisions, more fully explain motivations, and help build more complete protagonists and supporting characters. Yet they are glaringly absent from a lot of SF. Why? Are the writers somehow incapable of mixing technological musings with complex character motivations? Maybe they don’t care? Maybe they can’t see the purpose in writing about beings who actually, y’know, feel?
I was being facetious when first thinking up reasons why (especially male) writers might abandon emotions but, by sheer accident, I think I stumbled across something profound regarding character complexity within SF/SFR. You see, I think the authors who are interested in writing the “hyper-masculine” heroes are actually gearing their stories towards one purpose: ESCAPE. Whereas the authors who are interested in writing complex emotional characters are gearing their stories towards a different purpose: EXPLORATION.
I’m remembering one author who was famous for his interstellar “secret agent” series. His character would save the galaxy and maybe leave a tearful woman or two in his wake. (Which series? I know, there are so many to choose from.) This character never evolved. There was little regret or rationalisation. The women were always abandoned to cry over their “hyper-masculine” love. Their love for whom, exactly? A lantern-jawed organic robot bereft of feedback loops? (This observation has also been noted by author Eva Caye in her TO BE SINCLAIR series.)
(Am I picking on SF in this? Oh, absolutely. I have also read many horror novels, fantasy tomes and thrillers where it seems the entire object of the game is to retain the main protagonist as an emotional midget. But, you see, I don’t love horror, fantasy or thrillers the way I love SF. So you can consider this editorial as a bit of “tough love” from a true fan.)
I have come to the realisation that what is touted as “hard” SF (as well as most space opera) is not really about science or even adventure…it’s about escape; escape from those messy emotions that always screw up the descriptions of time dilations and information ingestion as energy states of atoms excite at the event horizon of a black hole; or which get in the way of those ravening beams of pure energy that blast through gigantic shields of titanium till they run white-hot and peel off in molten spheres that harden instantly in the arid, unthinkably frigid coldness of space. Putting a fully-realised character into either situation is to bring human reality to an escapist science fantasy, and such a thing is generally not appreciated by its targeted reading audience.
SFR, on the other hand, seems mainly concerned with exploration. Exploration of ourselves within speculative scenarios. What does it take to attract us? Repel us? What is needed to betray someone? To comply with orders that challenge our moral code? To love, to hate, to cooperate, to collude…to a greater or lesser degree, that is the axis around which both SFR and social SF revolves. In other words, both inner and outer exploration.
A character without emotional development is sterile at best, which prompts the exceedingly rational question of why I should waste my time reading about such “people” in the first place…unless I wish to escape my own complexity. Do you care whether your toaster is feeling fulfilled this morning, or do you just want it to carefully burn your bread already? The robot sweeping the floor at the spaceport, day in and day out? Meh. The robot sweeping the floor at the spaceport, day in and day out, while wondering how to break its programming so it can go on adventures? Now I’m interested.
My current theory is that what we now call “SFR” grew out of frustration—frustration of readers who loved technology, space, and what-if scenarios, but hated the fact that the characters who moved through such provocative scenarios were little more than banks of limited-capacity, pre-punched cards, incapable of changing their behaviour based on new information. Do I really want to read yet another story about a steely-eyed, morally inflexible hero who keeps executing the same tricks in book after book, without a shred of self-reflection? And it seems that other readers have thought the same way. While I appreciate the emotional richness of social SF, my own wish is for space battles AND fantastical architecture AND a universe-on-the-edge-of-exploding AND complex, changing characters. Yes, all in the same book! If the environment is so rich, why not the people who inhabit it? We created the space stations and the General Systems Vehicles and the Nexus-class replicants and the Ringworlds…they didn’t create us. So why are we written as diminished beings in our own creations? It makes no sense. Unless, as I said before, you wish to escape yourself.
You’ll notice that I haven’t drawn any gender lines regarding who reads SFR and who doesn’t. That’s because I firmly believe that humans of all inclinations are interested in human complexity. And that’s where I think the next challenge lies for SFR and its authors. We’ve already shown that SFR can tackle the space opera elements as well as anyone else. What we need to do now is to widen the audience and break out of the “wimmin” ghetto that SFR appears to be relegated to. Humans reach out to humans; humans reach out to aliens; humans reach out to cyborgs. That’s what we do/will do, because we’re biologically and psychologically wired that way, and that’s what we all wish to explore.
I was recently watching a documentary detailing the making of Pink Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON album. When asked about its longevity (fourteen years on the charts!), Dave Gilmour replied that it was all down to the “emotion” of the album. Why did a disc of vinyl have (and continues to have) such a profound influence on people worldwide? Because of its emotion, its timeless resonance, its eternal human dilemmas, encapsulated in a 43-minute capsule of sound and mental imagery. And we come back to the power of emotion: the resonance, the dilemmas, the multi-layered realities of both social SF…and SFR.
I think we need to forge a clear path away from the emotionally-stunted regions of SF. We need to convince readers of every colour, creed, inclination and species 😉 that characters and technology are not mutually exclusive, and can happily coexist within SF. Can we put ”hard“ science into our books? Sure, if we want to. Can we write compelling characters? But of course. SFR authors have learnt the lessons of romance when it comes to fully-realised characters and we continue to learn the lessons of SF when it comes to otherworldly vistas. To my mind, only historical romance writers come close. We need to encourage new writers of the genre, critique constructively, support overwhelmingly and build up enough of a critical mass to make a difference in this, our most beloved of genres.
See us over here, waving our hands and jumping up and down? Come on over and let’s chat.