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      CommentAuthorcity creed
    • CommentTimeJun 21st 2012
    Waugh was nonetheless a dab hand at characterisation by stealth.

    A whole Gothic world had come to grief … there was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorn had fled.

    -- The single, solitary glimpse into the protagonist's interior world offered in the entirety of /A Handful of Dust/. A head full of absent unicorns.
    For the rest of the book, Tony Last's character is fleshed out only through his actions and interactions and the reported perceptions of others. The story is showing, not telling, how this person is in the context of their world. Showing in this way leaves an interiority vacuum that a reader fills with their own projections of the character's self. Tony Last could be almost anyone - Tony Last could be you. The fact that Waugh switches to telling us what's in his mind only once in the story, and does so to reveal Tony's failed, pitiful fantasy world, is no accident I think.

    I loved /Red Mars/ a lot on first reading for all the spectacle-of-the-imagination type reasons given by others above. The scale of it, the attention to world-building detail, the earnest political intrigues, the epic science love. I do think it suffers a little from telling rather than showing when it comes to characterisation though. Particularly with Maya, who I never really felt at home with. There is a great deal of "it seemed to her that..." and "she found herself thinking..." and the like. I don't know, it works to keep the plot moving along but for me it's like the people are behind a pane of glass. It's the writer's voice as expositional deus ex machina and it gets in the way of real identification with the characters. I think Waugh understood how to negotiate this paradox better than Robinson does but that's in no way a slight on Robinson, whose stories I still totally dig - /The Years Of Rice And Salt/ is a doozy - just for different reasons.

    The somewhat passive-aggressive suggestion by Alan above, that if you don't like the characters in the Mars Trilogy you are a cleverness-hating anti-intellectual with pigshit between your toes, a bloody pitchfork and ruinous dental health (admittedly, I'm paraphrasing) seems a little unfair. I have spent time with brain-using individuals I didn't afterwards lynch, I recognise the high-flying scientist personality traits in the Mars characters as realistic and apposite, even when they're being obnoxious. I just don't really care about any of them - the individuals I mean. Of course I'm rooting for the colony as a whole - the idea of a Mars colony and all its potentials. But I feel much more for Tony Last than any one of them even though it's pretty much impossible to like or respect him.

    Despite his rank impotence, his embodiment of atavistic privilege, his desperate pretences and his spineless submissions, I'd got to know Tony and started to understand him just from the shape of the impressions he leaves in his world. The single glimpse into his mind quoted at top is almost superfluous in terms of characterisation. The tragedy of his existence is already evident. He's not realistic, in fact he's such a stylized cliche that a lot of his behaviour is "basically unbelievable". The thing is, it doesn't matter. His pain is believable, his misery is utterly real. The emotional core of the story is solid and I think I'd argue that's primarily because Waugh leaves the modelling of Last's interior world up to the reader rather than trying to spell it all out explicitly. One recent example of something similar being done very well is /Drive/ I reckon.

    So to drag it back to topic; when your hypothetical interlocutor gives the Mars Trilogy as an example of sketchy characterisation in the SF of big ideas... she might be on to something. Robinson's Martians are a perfect collection of exquisitely painted models and, believability to one side for a moment, that makes them somehow less accessible to empathy. By contrast, near-blank slates like Tony Last or Gosling's Driver are free to command our identification, even in their worst moments.

    It's not the whole story, there's lots of good writers who use interiority effectively for sympathetic characterisation.
    It's just about showing, not telling.
    • CommentTimeJul 2nd 2012
    Not so much about Bad Characterization but Ideas (or lack of them) in general...

    The Two Ways Science Fiction Is Slowly Destroying Itself
    Science fiction is in trouble and it’s not a lack of presence. Science fiction fans complain endlessly about the lack of sci-fi on television, but the truth is that there’s plenty of science fiction on television. There’s plenty of science fiction everywhere. It’s just the wrong kind.

    Here’s a list of the science fiction movies being released through the rest of this year. See if you can spot a pattern…
    Men in Black III
    Chernobyl Diaries
    Piranha 3DD
    Safety Not Guaranteed
    Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
    Total Recall
    Resident Evil: Retribution
    • CommentAuthorOxbrow
    • CommentTimeJul 2nd 2012
    Prometheus has definitely received complaints about characterisation...
  1.  (10680.4)
    I agree that the characterisation in Red Mars was pretty bad... Tho I still did find the book extremely interesting and fun to read.
    However without decent characters it felt a lot more like I was reading an interesting textbook rather than a novel...

    It didn't bother me too much because as far as I knew the genre of novel was 'future history'... which I thought of as fiction that was designed to read like non-fiction. As I was reading the book I could see how it fit what (I was coming to realise) this genre was all about.
    • CommentAuthorsnafu
    • CommentTimeSep 10th 2012
    It's tough to separate character from story. It happens all the time, especially is SF which is about ideas, but it shouldn't. The best kind of story rises from character. I've been in the story business, although from a slightly different angle, for 25 years and it's all about character. I may be prejudiced. I agree that the Mars trilogy is dry. I barely made it through Red Mars and never picked up any of the others, though I've been a big fan or Robinson's work for years.

    Characters and characterization should reflect themes and elements of the story. That's serious writing. Say all you want about Twilight, but she new what she was doing. There's a reason why those books sold like they did. The more closely the characters are tied to the themes and events of the story, the more thoroughly they live them, the more intimate the experience is going to be for the reader. We live in that world, whether a completely imagined sic-fi world or the house down the street, through the characters. James Cameron's Avatar is crap sic-fi. The characters are incredibly relatable. We see an amazing world through their eyes. The result is the highest grossing film ever.

    This is something that Robert Heinlien did better that anyone else and why his novels routinely crossed over. Amazing characters in fantastic situations that drove the story. It's something that's missing from a lot of Science fiction, especially hard sf. The old guard, Heinlein, Asimov, Sturgeon, understood. They came up through the ranks of short story and learned how to build character and story from maximum impact in a short work. Much of the most recent science fiction i've seen lately has been about huge ideas at the expense of character or puffy melodrama, which account for most of everything anyway. I'd love to see great story and character wrapped up in a beautiful package of big ideas for a change.

    Uncle Warren does this. It's one of the reasons I've followed his work for years.
  2.  (10680.6)
    other than the Mars trilogy and the Ringworld books, what are some good examples of HARD sci fi?
  3.  (10680.7)
    Pretty much everything by Stephen Baxter.
    • CommentTimeSep 13th 2012 edited
    I will go to my grave defending the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars books as containing great characters. All I ever hear as far as the actual substance of complaints about the characters in those books is that they "aren't good characters". How, exactly? What about the way they were written makes them not very good?

    I found them to be intreaguing, well written, speaking in different, well observed voices, having disparate opinions that grew out of their individual natures, acting on the world in which they are portrayed in a very realistic manner. What was the fault in their portrayal, why do people think they were sub-par?

    I'll also come out swinging against Robert Heinlein. He wrote compelling stories, but really he only has 4 characters that he uses over and over again ad nauseum. 1) The practcal libertarian hero, 2) the practical heroine who is casual with sex, 3) the elderly sex obsessed libertarian curmudgeon, 4) anyone else, universally portrayed as an ignorant uptight yokel.

    Name a Heinlein character that doesn't fit one of those molds. Name one who doesn't talk like a Heinlein ideological essay.

    Maybe you'll say Podkayne, but I'd place her in the Practical Hero category just because she was too young for Heinlein to not feel squicky about making her casual about sex.

    These are not characters, they are colorful, fun puppet mouthpieces.

    Robinson writes real characters, with full lives, motivations, conflicting opinions (that often don't reflect the author's own, but are still well thought out) and differing degrees of competance at the tasks they set themselves.

    Heinlien mostly writes adventures or polemics. Robinson writes novels.


    Arguing the definition of Hard SciFi is like parsing the theological legitimacy of all the protestant splinter sects. I have no problem with what anyone else defines as Hard Science Fiction. These are some books/authors that I feel fit the definition:

    Verne Vinge: anything by him. Particularly liked A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky.

    Frank Herbert: you could argue, but I feel the sciences he was fictionalizing was sociology and politics, not physics or biology.

    Gregory Benford: Anything by him.

    Greg Bear: Anything by him. Forge of God and Anvil of Stars are pretty great.

    John Ford: specifically the novel Growing Up Weightless, which is about role-playing teenagers on a moon colony.

    Paolo Bacagalupi: The Windup Girl

    Ian MacDonald: anything by him.

    Neal Stephenson: Anathem. His other science fictiony books are more punk than hard, but they probably all sort of qualify.

    Dan Simmons: The Hyperion Cantos

    Michael Flynn: The Wreck of the River of Stars (one of my favorite books).

    Thats a bunch I like. There are lots more. I'd argue you couldn't go wrong dipping into any of these.
  4.  (10680.9)

    Oh the Hyperion Cantos is 'hard' sci-fi?
    I hadn't realised this. I ordered Hyperion last week it should be here soon.

    I think I'll order Ringworld too... from what I can gather from skimming the net it seems this series fits into the genre well.

    Hopefully these books don't feel like a chore to read
  5.  (10680.10)
    How about the Ian M Banks books?