Not signed in (Sign In)
  1.  (10680.1)
    I think there are two things that define Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. 1) It has the most awkward characters in ages and 2) It's the most intellectually stimulating trilogy of books I've read in my adult age. However, when I try and talk about that trilogy to modern sci-fi fans, the only thing I get is bitching about bad characters. Charles Stross had a good rant about the subject lately, and it kicked me off the edge to write my piece about it also.

    Thoughts, Whitechapel?
    • CommentTimeMay 26th 2012
    I actually didn't find the characters to be bad. I've never understood why people think that.
    • CommentTimeMay 26th 2012
    This makes me think of something I saw over on Space-Daddy Warren's site not that long ago.

    SF, big ideas, ideology: what is to be done?
    • CommentTimeMay 26th 2012 edited
    The only good characterisation in the Mars trilogy is Mars itself. Kim Stanley Robinson puts your feet into the red dust of Mars and shows you its landscapes, but his writing style becomes drier and more detached with each book to the point of being almost unreadable. It's the same problem Stephen Baxter has, when his books become overwhelmed by the science to the detriment of plot and character.
    • CommentAuthor256
    • CommentTimeMay 26th 2012
    Couldn't disagree more about Kim Stanley Robinson's characterization. Admittedly, he builds his characters in a very unhistrionic way, but it really works for me. The first person I lent the Mars Trilogy to read all the way to the last 30 pages and refused to go any further because she couldn't face the idea of it being over and having to let go of those characters.

    Also, for my money, Robinson is fantastic at describing what you might call the lived experience of his characters; what it's like to see and feel the world from their perspective. I think that's a very subtle art. There's nothing in literature that makes me throw a book across a room sooner than a description of a character's way of looking at something that I can't believe has ever really gone through someone's mind.

    To the broader point, I think science fiction is always going to be difficult because it has to serve two masters: It has to be good fiction, with all the demands that entails, and it has to bring in new, weird, interesting, challenging ideas. That's never been an easy proposition, but I don't think there's any particular evidence to say that it's becoming more difficult, or that fewer people are succeeding.

    As the man said, 90% of everything is, was, and always will be, crap.
  2.  (10680.6)
    I followed the link to Charlie's piece from Warren's blog, and my first thought was of KSR too. I read The Years of Rice and Salt, and most of the way through the Pacific Rim trilogy, but I couldn't get more than a third of the way in to Red Mars. He is brilliant and extrapolates the big picture like a master but actually reading the result is like eating sawdust. I don't know why but as a teen and a young man I had much more time for really dry writing where the characters are less important than the events. From your piece it sounds like we had a similar reading list.

    @256 - As to "unhistrionic" – well, yes, they are, but with KSR it extends almost to the point of sort of autism, and I say that from an informed position. My wife has Aspberger's, and KSR's books are like a universe populated by Aspies. I'm pretty far from neurotypical myself but even I can't spend too much time there.

    I don't think the two positions need to be mutually exclusive. Sterling manages pretty well, for instance.

    Either way, hard SF has an important social function whether or not many of us find it fun or entertaining. Art of any kind - stories, songs, paintings, anything - is a push from the aesthetic sense of one to that of many; it seeks to induce an experience. All animals from about the insect level of complexity up have an aesthetic sense - that's why sexual dimorphism works. We're a particularly social species with huge brains whose internal aesthetic experiences are often as vivid to us as our external experiences. We survive better when we cooperate. Aligning our internal experiences helps us cooperate by allowing fewer reasons to argue. Our brains contain a lot of mirror neurons that make us involuntarily imitate one another: think of how yawns or laughter are catching. Art evolved from pareidolia and related apophenias - false positives in our pattern recognition software - that propagate through this innate drive to be like each other. It has another effect, however: it improves our adaptability and therefore our resilience by allowing us to rehearse having strange experiences while in settings of relative safety. Art propagates memetically, so as long as hard SF is fully, immersively experienced by a few people who go on to reiterate the key ideas in other - perhaps more accessible - formats, then it has provided us with greater resilience. Ideas familiar from fiction can be responded to more effectively when they occur as fact. The ideas in hard SF are more likely to actually occur than the ideas in other forms of speculative fiction.

    tl;dr - it doesn't matter that I kind of grew out of it and that loads of people don't "get" it at all. Hard SF is here to stay because it performs a vital modern permutation of an ancient evolutionary function.
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2012 edited
    Perhaps a greater focus on characterization would entice more people to read Science Fiction? Or perhaps that route would be revealed as the Twilight series...

    The best characters are those whose motivations are revealed by their actions and, yes, I agree that on first read the characters of Red Mars drag on, but going over the book a second time reveals a wealth of humanity from all its filthy many-angled sides.

    There's some research to indicate that people who speak with voices have an increased value of creativity, so perhaps those books with dull characters are written by people more entranced with reality or their own capabilities than stories which transport the reader to other worlds.

    I think maybe "hard sci-fi" should be a genre and that "science fiction" should be a genre and never the two shall meet. Stranger in a Strange Land, Childhood's End, Rick Flagg, Heavy Liquid and Jack Kirby are all science fiction and each has elements of reality, yet would these works benefit from an Einsteinian reality? In each the world is filled with unique characters who surf the wave-forms of our thoughts, curling into reality, and Red Mars does so but in a different way, as it is a different genre of fiction than these others or even Neuromancer...

    I'm sure a case could be argued that a greater literary component would infuse science fiction with new vitality but is it really what we want to read?
      CommentAuthorAlan Tyson
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2012 edited
    I think maybe "hard sci-fi" should be a genre and that "science fiction" should be a genre and never the two shall meet.

    I disagree, mostly because I disagree with the idea that you have to be good at writing story, or good writing characters, or good at writing themes, and you can pick two but you have to leave the third behind and just live with that. That's entirely up to the writer and their skill at writing, nowhere in the laws of fiction that I know of does it saw you have to specialize.

    The thing is, people are gonna have really different tastes for the characters they do and don't like. Just ask a bunch of Star Trek fans who their favorite bridge officer is, and you'll get a bunch of different answers. What makes an effective character, though, is if that character belongs in the story, if they have something to add to the story, whether that's a unique perspective on the story's events, the main driver of those events, or just plucky comic relief. To my mind, a bad character is someone who just takes up space in the text and never does anything.

    Let's take the Star Trek thing and roll with it for a second. Star Trek is a really great example of shitty science, hackneyed plots, and more melodrama than you can shake a phaser at, but what keeps people coming back to it are its characters, characters which represent varied, and interesting, perspectives on exploration and science. Kirk is someone who uses science to his ends, and uses it well, even understands a lot of it, but is not a scientist himself. He acts on very unscientific instinct, and makes a point of the human element always needing to be present in science. Spock, on the other hand, represents the idea that science, reason, and a cool head will prevail against nearly any obstacle - he is the scientific principle given form. And then you have McCoy, who is far more of a scientist than Kirk (he's a doctor, perhaps the most practical kind of scientist there is), yet is also inherently suspicious of technology, and is even a bit of a luddite and an anachronist, though I don't think he doubts the scientific principle. McCoy is a very good stand-in for both old scientists and, I think, a lot of science fiction writers, particularly the way SF was starting to be written around the time Star Trek showed up.

    Okay, so now let's take a story with good science. Red Mars gives us John Boone, the most John Glenn astronaut anyone could ever hope for, complete with political acumen; Frank Chalmers, who is kind of the opposite of John in that he's a politician first, but one who understands and uses science (a point - put John and Frank together, and you get Kirk); and Nadia Chernyeshevski, a scientist who tries to avoid politics as much as possible, wanting only to build and then keep building, but who gets swept up in the politics of science nevertheless - her decision to stay out of the conflict does not exempt her from it. Now, anyone who's read more than ten pages of Kim Stanley Robinson knows that the man has a huge fascination for how science and politics interact (heck, he wrote a whole trilogy on it, though I have to admit that I haven't read it yet). These characters being who and what they are is no mistake. They serve the story, and they serve the reader by making that story about people they can understand, even if they don't like them (for instance, I agree with everything Horiko does, but I never much liked her as a person, which is totally different from not liking her as a character).

    I guess to put it another way: if someone doesn't like the characters in the Mars Trilogy, I'd say it's a good bet that they don't have a whole lot of friends who are scientists, engineers, theoreticians, mathematicians, or quibblers. For the exact same reason, if you don't really like the characters in, I dunno, Any Given Sunday, you probably don't watch a lot of football, and you certainly don't hang out with people who actually toss around a pigskin. Because the characters in the respective stories are exactly the kind of people needed to tell their stories, and tell them well.

    The characters may not be all that interesting, they may not be incredibly deep or layered, but they have a place in the story, and the story would be missing something without them. They're not set pieces, they exist to say and do more than "well, Jane, as you know, according to Dr. Phlogiston's theories," and they have an outlook on the events of the story that no other character could possibly have (ideally, two characters are going to have opposing or complimentary outlooks on the same event - as most of the characters in both Star Trek and the Mars Trilogy do). That is what makes a good character.

    A great example of this is the First-Contact-from-Hell novel Blindsight, by Peter Watts, which is fantastic (also, free in pdf form. Watts is a cool guy like that). It features characters who are cold, distant, prickly, damaged people. The most humane of all of them is so crammed full of technology that he hears cosmic radiation "like old jazz," one of them isn't human at all and never was, the other has possibly the most acute case of functioning PTSD ever heard of, and the main character, the only viewpoint character in fact (it's told in first person... mostly... sorta...) is missing half his brain, including the bit that allows him to empathize with other people. They are not fun people to spend a story with, there's a lot wrong with them, and don't actually know a whole lot about where they come from and who they started the story as (not even the main character). They sound like absolutely awful characters. Yet, Watts' skill as a writer is such that I was gripping the sides of my monitor when it looked like one of the character was about to die an absolutely awful, horrible death, and mouthing "shit shit SHIT SHIIIIT NO!" I cared about their well-being, I saw the story through their eyes as well as my own, and they each held up a mirror to my own preconceptions, prejudices, and assumptions. The story did this by itself as well, but the characters did most of the heavy lifting. It was great science fiction, and great characters. It was also great horror, and I'll maybe admit that, in a lot of ways, the characters were better "horror characters" than they were "science fiction characters," but since Blindsight is also a horror tale, that's pretty darn fitting.
      CommentAuthorAlan Tyson
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2012 edited

    (You knew there was gonna be a however, didn't you?)

    One of the oldest rules in fiction is this: good characters can make a bad plot and a stinky theme enjoyable, but a great plot and a soul-depth-churning theme just doesn't work if the characters are crap. Books like the latter are, to steal a simile from Patton Oswalt, like an absolutely delicious chocolate cupcake, within which is hidden a tiny, tiny nugget of dogshit.

    What is a crap character? The exact opposite of what was presented above: someone who goes through the story with no insight, no observations, no effect on the story, and worst of all, the greatest sin imaginable for a writer of characters, no change. A bad character is someone who just has things happen to them as a result of the story, and even if they happen to be a central plot point of that story, they never make any conscious move to affect it, and is never really affected by it.

    I wish I could give you some good examples of this phenomenon, but the fact of the matter is that these characters are pretty easy to spot early on (mostly because they tend to go on about how boring or sad their life is right from the page they are introduced on), and nothing makes me go "nope! I would rather re-read The BLDG BLOG BOOK for the eighth time than spend another second reading this crap," and then wipe the experience from my mental hard drive. In my life as a reader, I've seen these kinds of characters show up in fairy tales and morality plays a hell of a lot more often than they show up in science fiction, whether that SF is porous, squishy soft, or harder than tungsten and sharper than diamond nanotubes.

    So, no, I don't think good science fiction has to have bad characters, or is even more inclined to have bad characters than any other genre. Science fiction has characters which are good at telling science fiction stories, which don't happen to be to everyone's taste. I don't particularly like the characters in Harlequin romances, but those characters must be able to plug into somebody's life experiences and be able to shed light on some story particularly well, or no one would buy the dang things, and since they are still outselling just about everything else between two covers, I'm hard pressed to instantly dismiss them all as "bad characters," just characters I don't like, probably exactly because they are characters which fit their genre, which I also don't like, so particularly well.

    Maybe that's all it really comes down to: some people don't like science fiction characters. I'm willing to bet that those people who didn't like John, Frank, and Nadia, also weren't particularly fascinated by the idea of using spent fuel tanks as the building block for an interplanetary rocket, nor are they the kind of person who would put a book down in the middle of a chapter to think of the social and political consequences of genetically-engineered children. In short, they probably just don't like big idea, hard science fiction, and when asked why they don't, the characters are easy to pick on, because they don't want to look dumb by saying "I just didn't really care about how they lassoed comets in deteriorating orbits to make it rain on Mars." I'm putting a lot of words in people's mouths here, but I honestly do believe that's what's going on.

    If you like SF, you're going to enjoy (and be more forgiving towards) SF's characters. As Michael Moorcock said: "learn to love and respect the genre." Of course, he also said "I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas," so maybe there's a lesson in that.
  3.  (10680.10)
    I agree with Alan Tyson 100%. The ideas drive the story and the characters make it live. Good SF and Fantasy aren't just about the ideas, they're about how people live with them.
  4.  (10680.11)
    I found the science in the Mars trilogy fascinating. The sequence where the first space elevator comes crashing down, the tiny thermal windmills infected with designer microbes, the soletta; I loved all of these. What I didn't care for was the haphazard treatment of the characters - they weren't there to drive the plot, just to be randomly observed in a dry and detached manner, then to disappear without any kind of closure.
    • CommentAuthor256
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2012
    @Alan - mega post! Going to re-read that in the morning, but I think there's a lot there that I can get behind. also hopefully by then the paint fumes in here will have dissipated and I'll be able to think straight again.

    @kay - on the aspergers thing - now that you mention it, I wonder if there's an exploration to be made of the way that we find affinity for characters who are more or less like ourselves?

    @grease - interesting point about the characters not driving the plot - I think you're mostly correct in that assessment; it is, of course, Mars itself that really drives the plot. I think that's the only way you could have written a work of that scope. But I don't agree that it undermines the characters - actual people have character and real people are, after all, very often just bystanders to great events.

    That might not actually make any sense. Sorry - the paint, the paint.

    Also, in a sense, this comes down to a judgement that cannot be more objective than "I like it = good" and "I don't like it = bad".

    ALSO, sort of an aside - if Mr Ellis were here I just know he'd be reminding us that (by their original coinage) "hard sci-fi" means "science fiction based on the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.)" and "soft sci-fi" means "science fiction based on the soft sciences (sociology, psychology, economics, etc.)". This is distinct from the common usage (and the sense used mostly in this thread, I think) where "hard sci-fi" means sciency sci-fi, and everything else... is just sci-fi.

    My question is: Do we have a non-colliding shorthand for these two distinctions?

    Also, interestingly, by the first definition, the Mars Trilogy is very much both hard and soft sci-fi.
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2012
    it is, of course, Mars itself that really drives the plot.

    The plot of all the Mars books is largely driven by the central conflict of Sax Russell and Ann Clayborne over whether to terraform Mars or not. Every political and interpersonal conflict is driven in some way by this central character-based conflict. Mars is a landscape. The conflicts are over what we take with us as we move into the future, and what we lose by moving there. The whole three books are a dense web of character interactions. The plot is these character interactions.

    Alan did a good job above noting the many very well drawn characters in these books. They are all, every single major character, scientists. And not just any scientists, but ones who survived a very difficult global competition for 100 seats to the first permanent Mars colony. The way they think, interact with each other and argue tenaciously over long spans of time with their work reads very, very true to me.

    (As a side note - there is absolutely no point in getting into a discussion about what the terms Science Fiction, Sci Fi and Hard Sci Fi mean. That way lies madness.)
      CommentAuthorAlan Tyson
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2012
    Reply to a side note: I'm a big fan of just roping science fiction (from Gattacca to Battlestar Galactica), fantasy (dark, high, realist hilarious, and everything in between), alternate history, technothrillers, speculative history (okay, I might have just made that one up, but I bet you ten space bucks a book exists that you could call "speculative history"), horror, and a half dozen other genres into a great big Speculative Fiction family. That, however, is a topic for another time.
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2012
    Just a thought I'm going to leave here:

    Story has to be driven by characters, but events can come from anywhere. However, a series of events cannot constitute a story, because for stories you need characters.
    • CommentTimeJun 12th 2012 edited

    Heh - most of my friends are scientists, researchers, IT-geeks or some such, and I myself am a computational linguist and I've done research for living at one point :) Also, amongst the pals who've bitched about the Mars characters being one dimensional are... hmm, a mathematician, a biologist and if memory serves, a cosmologist :) So, at least here your bet went way off.

    I thought that the characters in the Mars trilogy were pretty much "theoretical viewpoints on legs" and even in their character progression and change they were almost caricatures at times. The thing is, I didn't really mind it since the central character of the books was the Mars as a setting and a social environment, not the characters themselves who were just vehicles to nudge the story onward. That's really the whole point of the blog post I wrote - I got so tired of people bashing characterization in books where it's not really that relevant. A good hard sci-fi story doesn't need to have super deep and nuanced characters if the main point is to tell a story that's larger than humans, or present a great concept or a setting.
    • CommentTimeJun 13th 2012
    @ Kay:
    and KSR's books are like a universe populated by Aspies.
    It's years since I read them but I think your point might be one of the main reasons I enjoyed the books as much as I did - not simply because I'm aspie, too, but that you learn just enough to get an idea why-who-did-what and rarely at the expense of the story moving forward. Plus I'm a sucker for the endless scientific detail. Hate to admit it here but I'm definitely in the camp who prefer events over people; like the characters are essentially passive, albeit subjective, lenses we see their world through.

    I wonder if there's an exploration to be made of the way that we find affinity for characters who are more or less like ourselves?
    Definitely maybe. I've always felt that the majority of people are at the mercy of events which they have no interest in and little control over and it's how they react to/cope/deal with these things that's always interested me. Character development's all well and good, just so long as it has a point and contributes to moving the narrative along somehow. And I have a pretty low tolerance if I think emotional dialogue, thoughts, feelings or interactions drag on and, for me, needlessly distracts attention away from where it should be going. Additionally, I think sometimes over-indulgence in describing what a character's back-story or emotional state is can border on making the reader a bit lazy. As limited (or so-wrong-it's-out-of-the-ballpark) my interpretation of all that might be, trying to intuit their motivations and subsequent feelings is part of the mindscape I create for myself when I read.

    So, to summarise: the reader is a passenger being carried by an unknowing mule who's travelling from A to B. Hopefully, the journey will include lots of original, breathtaking, mind-blowing ideas as well as a few twists, turns, ups, downs, highs and lows along the way. But if the mule starts braying too much, it spoils the trip. Yeah. I just likened the totality of human emotional expression to a noisy donkey. Sorry.

    Anyway, you both made really good points which I've never realised or considered till now and it'll be interesting to go back and re-read them with those perspectives on board.
    • CommentTimeJun 15th 2012
    Some of my favorite works are those of Olaf Stapledon - /Last and First Men/, /Star Maker/. Characterization wasn't really the point, and in that context I don't care. But doing that sort of writing is like making a plain steak or a baked chicken on a cooking show like /Chopped/ - when you go simple and focus on that one big thing, it has to be perfect. Witty dialog, banter and good characters allow you to gloss over the flaws in the work.

    It does seem as if the needle has swung almost entirely the other way in recent cinema - I'm thinking of the recent trend in movies like /Cloverfield/ or /Paranormal Events/ to only ever show the reactions of the characters, telling the whole story through their eyes without any god's eye narration or big reveals.
    • CommentTimeJun 19th 2012

    It does seem as if the needle has swung almost entirely the other way in recent cinema - I'm thinking of the recent trend in movies like /Cloverfield/ or /Paranormal Events/ to only ever show the reactions of the characters, telling the whole story through their eyes without any god's eye narration or big reveals.

    Which is one reason I really don't like the "found footage" genre. Honestly, Chronicle would've been so much better if the last act had been shot god's eye style.
    • CommentAuthorScrymgeour
    • CommentTimeJun 20th 2012
    interesting that in non genre-fiction the characterisation doesn't matter so much, on evelyn waugh "His first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, comically reflect a society of utter futility, peopled by two-dimensional, basically unbelievable characters in circumstances too fantastic to evoke the reader's emotions" (does satire count as genre fiction?)
    He always said that style and plot were more important than characterisation. and this "you can only leave God out [of fiction] by making your characters pure abstractions",