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Author Topic: characters vs. concept in science fiction
Dogbreath
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I recently watched a new show called "Defying Gravity." I was intrigued by it's description - a realistic portrayal of a near future manned space flight to all 7 planets - and was anticipating an, if not good, at least entertaining science fiction show.

To my disappointment the science fiction aspect is being treated as little more than a stage to spend 43 minutes a week exploring the characters on the ship - their past lives (via flashbacks), their relationships, their (near incessant and very juvenile) fornicating. Despite the claims of being a "realistic" show, there's a pretty callous disregard for even basic physics. (most notably the speed of light and Newton's third law of motion) Actually, the science fiction premise is only really mentioned when they need to increase tensions or create a dangerous situation. The creators of it proudly label it "Grey's Anatomy in space."

I'm not trying to bash "Defying Gravity." In fact, I'd prefer not to discuss it at all - there's another thread for that. I'd like to discuss the idea that all science fiction is really about people.

I've often heard the argument that science fiction is just a creative stage on which to have your characters act out their story, and I'm certainly a fan of character driven science fiction. I'm on OSC's home site, after all! But I really love Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep", which is at it's heart an *idea* story, and about ideas that don't really relate to human culture at all. (the two main ones being a super-intelligent computer virus and sentient creatures which are group minds, each composed of several semi-sentient brains)

In fact, in "A Fire Upon the Deep", the humans are there mostly to give us a vantage point from which to observe these ideas, and to have protagonists to move the story forward. At the end of the book, I didn't really feel impacted or even care about the human characters, and I didn't need to. What made the book so great was the sheer thrill that comes from exploring, analyzing, and finally coming to understand something entirely alien and new.

And to me, it seems that's what science fiction is about. Despite it's terrible science, what made Star Trek (TOS and TNG) so enjoyable for me was the adventure. (when the writers weren't trying to make a political point anyway, not that I noticed that much as a kid) And even the softest of good Science Fiction has some really unique concepts behind it. Consider the reproductive cycle of the Piggies in Speaker, for example, which is a very character driven book. Or an even more extreme example is The Dispossessed (probably my favorite sci-fi book) by Ursula K. Leguin which is pretty much an anti-capitalism tract, but still brilliantly shows humans struggling to survive and adapt on a barely habitable terraformed moon.

I'm bad at endings, but to summarize:

I believe all literature is at some level "about people" or "about society." Claiming it as the definitive mark of sci-fi is nonsensical. What makes sci-fi unique, IMO, is that it allows exploration of ideas that no other genre of literature could feasibly reach. Ideas beyond the scope of humankind or society, either because they're so much larger, or because they're so alien no part of human society could ever represent them.

I respect the power of science fiction to analyze people, society, culture, and government through a unique lens, but that's the power of literature in general. To smugly define it as "what all real science fiction is about" is a little jarring to me.

Of course, I'm hardly set in my thoughts on this matter (I've been debating it in my head for some time now), and am interested in other viewpoints and opinions on this. Please, discuss! [Smile]

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Samprimary
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While I haven't watched defying gravity myself and can't really comment on how it fits into sci-fi on the whole, the reality is that in order for something to be a mainstream "sci-fi" success, it seems, it's only going to be "sci-fi" in regards to setting. For all other intents and purposes, it's going to be indistinguishable from other genres.

That's why they go out of their way to call it "Grey's Anatomy in space." They're assuring us not to worry, that this isn't actually a genre shift. It's just in space.

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Flying Fish
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Have you ever read OSC's essays in which he talks about the MICE quotient? Basically, each story consists of milieu/ idea/ character/ or event, in a kind of ratio. Therefore, a story primarily about "idea" will have less development of milieu, character, and event.
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scifibum
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quote:
I've often heard the argument that science fiction is just a creative stage on which to have your characters act out their story...
I haven't...not really. I've heard that science fiction can be this way, but not that it is.
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Samprimary
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quote:
Originally posted by scifibum:
quote:
I've often heard the argument that science fiction is just a creative stage on which to have your characters act out their story...
I haven't...not really. I've heard that science fiction can be this way, but not that it is.
most science fiction that really asserts itself as science fiction in theme as well as setting tends to mire itself in tech fetishization.
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Dogbreath
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quote:
Originally posted by scifibum:
quote:
I've often heard the argument that science fiction is just a creative stage on which to have your characters act out their story...
I haven't...not really. I've heard that science fiction can be this way, but not that it is.
I heard someone say that yesterday. [Smile]

Well, let me rephrase that. She said that science fiction *should* be a setting for character interaction and/or discussing our own society, and little more. But then she seems to regard appreciation and enjoyment of strange new concepts for their own sake rather than applicability as a perversion of some sort.

Samp: I'm not sure if tech fetish is really a fair description. One half of A Fire Upon the Deep (mentioned in the OP) focuses on a pre-industrial society. It's got very little to do with technology, a lot to do with the sociology of a totally alien species. I have read some stories that seem to be about a single gimmick or new technology, but even those seem to go beyond that. For example, I read a story this year (can't remember the name) about a guy who builds a machine that can replicate matter in a fashion, but the stories ends by describing how much society is changed by the sudden end of all manufacturing and production as we know it.

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Samprimary
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There are always good stories that surpass the issue, but I'm talking about the baseline. It doesn't exist with as much comical reliability as game franchise crossover novels being gun-porn, but it's still there.
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Dogbreath
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quote:
Originally posted by Samprimary:
There are always good stories that surpass the issue, but I'm talking about the baseline. It doesn't exist with as much comical reliability as game franchise crossover novels being gun-porn, but it's still there.

Not sure if it's what you mean, but "surpass" makes it sound like you believe it's endemic to science fiction, whereas I'd say it's a symptom - the way the disease of shoddy writing manifests itself in the host body.

That being said, there's nothing wrong with properly implemented future technology. A rule of thumb I typically apply is "if it doesn't have a different function than said modern utility, don't call it something fancy." Having your main character constantly refer to his/her "9000v super space blaster death ray X30" rather than "gun" or "weapon" is almost always unnecessary. (if the weapon has a somewhat different function, you can reveal that implicitly with your description of it's use)

Also: gun porn + tech fetish = hilarity.

And, for scifibum: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlS3t4y2TRA his comment at around 0:50 is an example. "It has to do with people. And that's really what science fiction - true science fiction - is." Most of my experience is little remarks like that, by people I talk to, or in reviews, or in essays. In passing - something people seem to believe inherently. It's not something I've seen a whole essay dedicated to, but I can look...

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scifibum
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Ok, I believe that you've encountered the argument. [Smile] No need to dig up further evidence.

I lean toward the view that a story can be about technology, or exploring some weird idea that has nothing to do with people, without being "mired" in the fetishization of technology. I'm not sure what Samp's been reading, or just how much criticism is implicit in his choice of terms, but it hasn't been much of a problem in the bibliography of my own sci-fi reading. If the story sets out to examine some nifty idea, how can it then be mired by doing exactly that? It wasn't trying to get anywhere else. And it can be really interesting, although I DO find more overall value in stories with more human (or sometimes nonhuman) interest.

N.B. A Fire Upon the Deep is one of my all time favorites.

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Dogbreath
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Huh, doesn't look like this thread's going anywhere fast...

quote:
Originally posted by scifibum:
Ok, I believe that you've encountered the argument. [Smile] No need to dig up further evidence.

I used to post on a forum full of humorless trolls who, should you make any point without three reliable sources to back it up, would viciously devour your argument and leave you trembling. Every now and again, I still have flashbacks and tend to overcompensate. No harm done, I hope? [Razz]

(seriously, I've seen 6 or 7 page arguments about the veracity of a given source. Not a pretty sight)

quote:
I lean toward the view that a story can be about technology, or exploring some weird idea that has nothing to do with people, without being "mired" in the fetishization of technology. I'm not sure what Samp's been reading, or just how much criticism is implicit in his choice of terms, but it hasn't been much of a problem in the bibliography of my own sci-fi reading. If the story sets out to examine some nifty idea, how can it then be mired by doing exactly that? It wasn't trying to get anywhere else.
Likewise. But thinking back, I realised I don't really read much "baseline" science fiction. I typically buy The Years Best Science Fiction by Gardner Dozois, and then go to the library and check out anthologies by the authors in it I *really* like, and then get a few novels. That suits all my yearly sci-fi needs. Maybe if I got various sci-fi magazines and did more random reading, I'd see more of it?

quote:
And it can be really interesting, although I DO find more overall value in stories with more human (or sometimes nonhuman) interest.
I think the sci-fi stories that have stuck with me most are the ones that are character based, but that's human nature... of course we'll love and think about the stories that we can relate to best, due to the applicability. On the other hand, really good "idea" sci-fi stories tend to be the ones that really send my mind spinning and keep me up all night reading to figure out how it works. Reading them is like giving my imagination a really good workout.

The stories I tend to think of as the very best typically manage to do both. Speaker for the Dead and Enchantment, for example, are my favorite OSC novels because they both have fresh and interesting concepts, and are very personal as well. (though a friend of mine who loves Ender's Game told me he despised SftD, so YMMV)

quote:
N.B. A Fire Upon the Deep is one of my all time favorites.
It's wonderful, isn't it? Vernor Vinge is great at concept stories... actually, I even like reading non-fiction by him and listening to lectures he gives, since he's so brilliant. And it's good, too, because I actually really dislike his characters, and most of novels that have a lot of people in them leave me feeling somewhat disgusted. (the protagonist from Rainbow's End, for example, is terrible person IMO)
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Sterling
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If science fiction has to be about the characters, Heinlein didn't write a heckuva lot of science fiction. Oh, he had a few memorable characters, certainly- but for every one you could name, there were five who existed to be little more than mouthpieces for whatever idea he wanted to push.

And notably, he's still considered one of SF's great writers.

I'd also like to mention Greg Egan. His novels are often quite interesting (IMHO) but their grand ideas aren't usually exactly about "society", per se. I'd tend to argue that something like Diaspora goes some length to create "people" who are very difficult to relate to as being like human beings in a human society.

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