Saturday, July 16, 2011

Characterization in science fiction

Ryan Britt has a very good post at entitled “Genre in the Mainstream: Does SFF Marginalize Characters?” It's well worth your time.

Britt hits on a good point when he remarks that a typical science fiction book simply has more things competing with the characters for attention than a more conventional story- a character who might seem perfectly acceptable in isolation may seem lackluster when placed alongside ideas that are much more interesting than he is. In a somewhat similar vein I would add another factor, the inescapable scarcity of resources that go into a book's creation.

Time is finite, energy is finite, and the number of words in a book is finite. Provided with equal amounts of these resources, “serious” fiction can put more into its characters because it generally does not place a significant focus on subject matter other than the characters; the plot and setting are mostly or entirely there to further characterization or theme, rather than as things meant to be interesting in themselves. Character-focused fiction is usually also free from the need to explain the nature of its setting or the laws that govern it.

Often, science fiction simply does not have the resources to spare. Take a book I reviewed here a while ago, Incandescence by Greg Egan. Not a character piece, to put it mildly. Its length is modest, 256 pages in the Night Shade Books copy that I own. Now, there are probably ways it could be tweaked to make the characterization somewhat better while staying at that length and without any damage to the book's specifically science fictiony virtues. But probably not by much, because our hypothetical Incandescence 2.0 also still needs to cover, with same amount of detail and clarity of explanation:

A galaxy-wide multi-species civilization. Ways in which uploaded personalities originating from biological species with radically different physiologies, psychologies, sensory organs, etc. interact comfortably in shared virtual environments. A mysterious, isolationist second civilization in the galactic core. The workings of a galaxy-wide communications network that is limited to light-speed transmissions and carries not only messages but entire machine intelligences. Panspermia. The physics of space close to black holes. The physics of space close to black holes. The biology and society of an alien species. The invention of the scientific method by a member of that species, and the gradual process of discovery through experimentation. The consequences of living in an environment where the effects of relativity are significant enough to be noticeable in day-to-day life.

And so on. And then there's the actual plot that still needs to fit, too.

Some writers are better than others at creating strong characters while still giving attention to plot, setting, and ideas. But there are still trade-offs to be made and different authors will tend to be more effective at some ratios of these elements than others.

Obviously, better characterization is better than worse, all else being equal. Some of my favorite science fiction stories are strongly character-based.   But- as Britt alludes to- much of the criticism leveled at science fiction on this matter is built on the assumption, often the explicit assumption, that the emotions and personalities of the characters is what fiction is really about, or at least what it ought to be about. It's not surprising that this would be so; in people, being strongly socially and emotionally attuned is a much higher-status trait than the sort of attributes that often draw people to science fiction, and it makes sense that the status of science fiction would correspond to that of the sort of personality it brings to mind.

Which is why, ultimately, my answer to the question “Does SFF Marginalize Characters?” is, “Frequently, yes. So what?” One of the things I love most about science fiction is precisely that it treats things like science, technology, and carefully thinking about how systems work and how they might be affected by change as actually interesting, instead of being bound by the sort of assumptions that privilege one facet of the human mind above all others as the one stories should be about.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief is the debut novel of science fiction author Hannu Rajaniemi. You can visit his website here.

The central character of the story is Jean le Flambeur, a legendary thief with a career that spanned centuries of time and the breadth of the solar system. Now, however, he is only another inmate in the Dilemma Prison, a virtual jail in the outer solar system where the uploaded personalities of criminals are kept for “rehabiliation” by the Sobornost, the posthuman collective of uploaded minds that is the greatest power in the solar system. His imprisonment comes to an unexpected end when he is rescued by a woman named Mieli. Mieli is no altruist, however- she and her masters have a job that requires the solar system's greatest thief. Le Flambeur agrees, feeling he owes her a debt of honor for his rescue. More importantly, the physical body he now inhabits after his release from the Dilemma Prison back into the world of flesh and blood is subject to Mieli's direct control.

But it's not just an object that Mieli needs le Flambeur to find. Much of le Flambeur's own centuries-long memory is missing. Le Flambeur's past self apparently had secrets so important that even his own memory was not secure enough, and so he hid them away in external storage external storage or locked up somewhere beyond awareness in his own mind and released only in response to particular stimuli to give his future self clues about where to find the rest of himself.

The trail left by his fragmentary memories  takes them to the Oubliette, a city of (comparatively) baseline humans perpetually crawling across the surface of Mars to keep ahead of the swarms of hostile, replicating, ever-evolving machines descended from malfunctioning terraforming machinery that now dominates much of the planet. The Oubliette is a place where privacy is almost absolute, and through the electronic network that links everyone in the city each citizen can control how much other people are able to see, hear, or even remember them. Le Flambeur remembers that he once lived here, and that the place is important to him- and if there were a place where he'd secretly hide memories away, this is it.

Meanwhile, a young detective in the Oubliette named Isidore Beautrelet is helping to investigate recent murders and acts of “gogol piracy”- forcible uploading of minds. He works in cooperation with a person known only as the Gentleman, one of the tzaddikim- mysterious vigilantes who have sworn to protect the city from outside threats. His successes bringing to the attention of wealthy Oubliette citizen Christian Unruh, who has a seemingly inexplicable mystery he wants solved. This mystery will bring Isidore and le Flambeur into collision with each other, and with the truth about le Flambeur.

The Quantum Thief is an excellent book that simultaneously works very well as a character-based story, an adventure, and a novel of ideas. The central plot is interesting throughout, especially as it builds up steam approaching the climax.

Jean le Flambeur is very enjoyable as the main viewpoint character. Much of the story is told by him in the first person, and fortunately he's a fun character to  follow around. The other major character's were also engaging; I was particularly fond of the Gentleman, Isidore's mysterious masked partner and mentor. (Especially once I decided that, in my head, the Gentleman would be played by The Question.) Rajaniemi does a very good job of creating characters that are clearly recognizable “types”- the roguish gentleman-thief, the mysterious woman with a painful secret, the earnest young detective and his older, more hard-nosed partner- but remain interesting, emotionally engaging individuals instead of being stock cliches.

The Oubliette is a fascinating setting with some intriguing elements. Each person is mentally linked to a citywide network that lets them exchange information and memories, while shrouded in protective encryption called gevulot that allows them to control what information about them can be accessed by others. Since everyone's mind is linked directly to the network, even the extent to which other people can see or hear you in real time, or- if a person consents through a “gevulot contract,” transmitted from mind to mind- remember you after the fact can be filtered this way. In addition to its importance to the main mystery plot, it creates an interesting situation in which people's basic psychology remains unchanged from our own but technology has radically changed fundamental aspects of social life. The hints given about the rest of the solar system are interesting as well, though are they fairly vague for the most part.

The book is very idea-heavy and set in a future where technology and society have changed radically. The technology to upload, download, or edit human minds is ubiquitous,  nanotechnology and other advanced technologies have risen to almost magical levels, advanced post-humans have risen to godlike heights of power and intellect, and even the comparatively unchanged humans in places like the Oubliette, who retain a fundamentally human psychology and lives that are at least somewhat recognizable,  are profoundly different from 21st-century humanity in all sorts of ways. Within this world, Rajaniemi quickly throws the reader in the deep end and mostly expects him to swim on his own. New concepts and terms come  quickly and aren't always explained right away, or in depth, though as things progress it gets easier to keep up and infer things from context.

I like this sort of approach when it's done well (as it is here),  since it makes it possible to put a lot of speculative technologies, setting information, and the like into the story, and can create a sort of puzzle for the reader to solve as he starts to gain enough context to understand things that were previously confusing or obscure. But it's not for everyone, and in comments I've seen from people who didn't like the book this is almost always the reason. If you do enjoy that sort of approach, though, The Quantum Thief does it very well.

I would definitely recommend The Quantum Thief for science fiction fans, especially those interested in  very idea-focused SF and subjects like transhumanism. It's a somewhat iffier proposition if you're not a fan of the sort of dense take-no-prisoners worldbuilding I described above, but if that's not an absolute deal-breaker for you the story and characters are strong enough that I think the book is still worth a try. It's definitely a strong debut, and I look forward to seeing what Hannu Rajaniemi does next.

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