Lately I’ve been trying out a variety of contemporary sci-fi authors that deal with various aspects of the Singularity. I think it’s sad to admit, but I have yet to be able to finish one. The last one I tried was Charles Stross Accelerando, a book which I recommend you do not read unless you find long strings of technobabble to be as hip and cool as Stross seems to. My current battle is with David Brin’s Existence, bought when I heard an interview with him online in which he had a discussion about the future of humanity that I found intriguing. I read the description of the book and it also sounded interesting. It is interesting. So was Stross, honestly. So what was the problem?
None of these books seem to have characters. If they do have characters, the characters exist primarily as mouthpieces by which the author can convey all the interesting thoughts they have and that they speak about at length in NPR interviews. The thing is, though, that such discussions, while interesting, do not make for a good story. At least, they don’t for me.
A story is about a person or, more rarely, as small group of people. They can live in as bizarre a universe as you please, but ultimately I, the reader, am interested in them only insofar as I am emotionally compelled by their conflict. The emphasis there is on their conflict – as in the character(s), individually. I am not really motivated by the plight of humanity in general. Am I interested? Sure. Believe me, I have many of thoughts about this myself, but I know that I can’t just write a novel that does nothing but talk about humanity at large without weaving such a discussion into the idiosyncratic problems of a specific individual. To do otherwise makes your novel didactic, preachy, evangelical. It wears on me when I feel that I’m reading a book that’s trying to do nothing more than engage me in debate. If I wanted that, I’d read non-fiction or attend conferences. When I’m reading a novel, I expect entertainment. I expect a protagonist with a problem I want to see resolved, not a series of placeholder people meant to do nothing more than paint a picture of what they think humanity is/will be like.
Now, this doesn’t mean I object to stories with defined and discernible points or arguments to be made (I prefer these to the completely ‘pointless’ stories that populate fantasy and scifi), but it does mean I expect your message to be a little more subtle. If I’m reading a book with a rotating cast of 6 main characters, none of whom have anything clearly to do with one another, and all of them apparently present to act as expository mouthpieces for your new universe, I am going to get frustrated. I am not reading speculative fiction for ‘slice of life’ scenes in imaginary worlds; I’m reading it for the exploration of character and conflict in unusual circumstances. This connects, if indirectly, to my frustration with certain long-running fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.) that have decided to put an emphasis on a persistent world rather than on the resolution of conflict. There is only so long I am going to wait for catharsis/denouement before I get bored, no matter how fascinating the subject matter of the fantasy/scifi world. If I suspect that there is no catharsis to be had because there is no dramatic tension to be released (because there are no characters that I am attached to or interested in), I am going to put the book down. If, however, you keep all that stuff in there and weave your issues into that conflict with a degree of subtlety, then you’ve just written a pretty damned incredible book.
Of course, I’m just one guy talking, here. I suppose there are a lot of folks (particularly in scifi) who really love those stories where all they really do is watch the world turn according to the author’s whim and various characters just kind of pop in and out. Come to think of it, I can think of authors who did this fairly well (Asimov and Clarke chief among them), but in all of those instances the plight of the hero was still central to the plot, no matter if the author was less interested in that plot than in the themes they were exploring. Anyway, I’m still fighting with Existence and, to its credit, it’s starting to improve a bit. If I have to keep sitting through radio talk-shows in the novel or attend conferences and actually listen to the speeches the guys are making, I don’t know if I’m making it through. If you wanted to publish a lecture series, Mr. Brin, you could just do that. I’d read it. Just don’t dress it up like an adventure story and expect me to applaud.
First of all, if you’ve got some time on your hands, listen to this interview with David Brin (and thanks to my friend, David, who drew my attention to it). There is more stuff to talk about in that interview that I could possibly stuff into a single blog post (or, at least, not if I wanted anybody to ever read it all), but I want to explore and correlate a couple things he talks about there which I find both fascinating and very true.
Speaking broadly, Brin differentiates between our ‘romantic’ selves and our ‘rational’ selves. The first is the thing that makes you cry at the end of Old Yeller and the second is the thing that makes you understand that the end of Old Yeller makes perfect sense and was the right thing to do. Brin associates our romantic selves with a lot of what has happened in human history, much of it bad, ranging from the Dark Ages to our love affair with Star Wars. The rational part of us he attributes to the proliferation and success of modern democracy, the creation of our current civilization, and the scientific Enlightenment.
Interestingly enough, I bet you find Dark Age barbarians and Star Wars much more fun than democratic reforms and scientific studies and that, right there, is exactly what Brin is getting at: our default state, the state we prefer, is the romantic one. It makes for better stories, higher adventure, and the glorious conservative myth of a golden age long past. There are a lot of different places I can dig in here, but let’s start with this one: This theory of the ‘romantic self’ is the underpinning of a vast majority of fantasy literature and religious and cultural mythology.
Take kings or the idea of monarchy, for example. Every fantasy has ’em, pretty much, and if they don’t, they often have wizards, demigods, noble houses, emperors, or ruling demi-human species as a fill-in. These kings are also often heroic figures or, if they aren’t, they are waiting to be deposed so the ‘true’ king can be installed. Aragorn needs to take command of the Armies of Men to defeat Sauron; Daenerys is rightfully the heir to the Iron Throne; Rand al’Thor is the Dragon Reborn and would everyone please stop getting in his way and listen to him for once! History, likewise, is awash in kings, both heroic and villainous, and, indeed, the majority of history has been under the thumb of some kind of absolute ruler.
Our enchantment with them, however, supposes that there is such a thing as a ‘good king’ or that monarchy itself is a wise or workable system. This is our Romantic selves talking, not our rational ones. As Brin points out, it took the weakening of top-down authoritarian systems to bring about the technological and social advances that have created our current civilization. A top-down system discourages competition, while a more egalitarian system encourages the kind of competition and innovation needed to improve and advance, since the genesis of those things comes from dissent from popular opinion, something that doesn’t happen under the rule of a Robert Baretheon or even an Aragorn.
Fantasy, though, is primarily under the influence of this romantic notion that there is some single golden-child who is the right person to tell everyone what to do. Everyone from Star Wars’ Jedi Knights to the Mistborn of Sanderson to Harry Potter perpetuate the idea of ‘specialness as societal cure,’ even when mitigated by apparently liberal ideals that the heroes happen to support (because, after all, no good king would forbid free speech, obviously). Such stories and their appeal is, on some level, powered by a direct connection to that basic human romantic notion that there is a person out there who can tell you what to do and be right all the time, absolving you from your own troublesome duties of thinking for yourself, making your own decisions, and taking ownership of your failures and successes. If you don’t think that’s a thing, you need only read a history book – everyone has been doing that since forever.
Fantasy, then, is ultimately a conservative genre in its most literal sense – the conservation of old modes of order and old modes of doing things (based often off the fuzzy logic of metaphysical powers and spiritual manifestations) for the purpose of retaining what our romantic brains tells us is more fun and interesting. There is no law that says it must be so, however; I like to flatter myself that my own work in the fantasy genre breaks this mold, if only a little bit. After listening to David Brin, I may just up that from ‘a little bit’ to ‘a lot’. Magic in Alandar is already egalitarian (you needn’t be born with power to use it – anybody with discipline and a good teacher can do it) and Tyvian Reldamar is already an iconoclast, but I can go further. I should go further.
Fantasy should join the best work of its speculative cousin, Science Fiction, and show us where we ought to go rather than making us miss where we’ve been.