Characterization in Science Fiction – The More the Merrier
I’ve been reading Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction by Robert Silverberg, and one line in particular really caught my attention so far.
First though, a note on the book itself. It’s a compilation of classic sci-fi short stories from about the ’50s, when science fiction experienced somewhat of a Golden Age (though I think it’s experiencing one right now too) and sci-fi magazines abounded, offering an outlet for new writers to get their work published. The author, Robert Silverberg, was born in 1935, so came of age during this Golden Age, which means he has some pretty set ideas about what makes for good science fiction.
I’ll write a review of the book once I’m finished it, but nonetheless I’d like to discuss one of his ideas in this post. At one point Silverberg says,
“Rich characterization can sometimes be an impediment in science fiction, where the focus is often on a unique external problem rather than on a unique human being.”
It’s worth it to note that he’s writing this in the context of a novelette that he’s commenting on. He’s referring to Four in One by Damon Knight, and he means it as a compliment because that story does not include too much characterization or character development. Indeed, some short stories are so short that they simply don’t have the space to get into too much characterization. (Not the case with Four in One, though). Even so, when I first read this line it really surprised me!
For one thing, I didn’t enjoy Four in One at all precisely because it had no character development and was very slow. Sure, the premise is interesting: four characters find themselves eaten by some sort of monster, but their brains remain intact, so they have to learn how to live in this new body. It’s a really fun premise, but the story is simply so slow that I skipped to the next one in the compilation.
I agree with Silverberg that science fiction is typically focused on a unique external problem rather than on a unique human being. However, I don’t think a story can stand strong without rich characterization, because it is precisely the characters who must move the story forward. It is their actions and their intentions and their motivations and decisions in dealing with the unique external problem that makes the story interesting. This doesn’t mean that stories need to be action-packed. It just means that characters must drive everything.
Consider Frankenstein, which depicts a very unique external problem, but also delves deep into the psyches of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. That’s where the real treasure of the story lies.
I would hazard a guess that Four in One would have been more interesting if we had gotten some more characterization. Most of the text follows the main character as he navigates this new body of his, but the nature of the slow-moving monster means that everything the main character experiences is slow and drawn out, resulting in far too much exposition. A good counter-balance to that would perhaps have been some more back story, maybe where we get a little more action to liven it up a bit. I dunno, I’m just hypothesizing!
At the same time, I’m not surprised that Silverberg takes this view because it seemed to be the predominant view of science fiction at that time. Indeed, it’s why I’ve had to put a few books on my list down: too much exposition, not enough character stuff.
Of course, everyone has different tastes in reading. I’d never say that Silverberg is wrong or that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s a very well-known science fiction author with many books and a ton of acclaim to his name. He obviously knows what he’s talking about. It’s just not my style of reading or writing.
However, I will say that I’m glad science fiction has evolved out of that style. I’d also guess that perhaps that’s why the genre had such a bad rap for a while, because the general public associated sci-fi with aliens and space ships and these unique external problems that offered no substance to the reader.
As I continue on reading through my list of the best sci-fi of all time, I hope to understand more about the evolution of the genre. I’ve already finished the next book on my list, I, Robot, which I found absolutely amazing and right up my alley. Look out for that review soon!