I was thinking about why I enjoy Science-Fiction the other day and it occurred to me that most Fiction fits into one of two categories: Character based or Story based. Science-Fiction introduces a third option, Concept based. To be truly enjoyable, a Sci-fi story must contain elements of all three but I think most stories have one as their focus.
My favorite Sci-Fi stories are Concept based with a very strong Character basis as well. Sci-Fi lets you ask the “What if?” questions. Some authors pose these “What if?”s to their readers, but I prefer to watch the people within the “What if?” grapple with living in that world. That’s why I prefer Asimov’s novel version of “Nightfall” over his short story, “Nightfall”. They tell the exact same story—a Concept story—but in the novel I’m able to connect with the characters and feel their complete terror. After reading the short story I couldn’t recall any character’s name. The short story was thought provoking but I couldn’t connect on an emotional level.
Which brings me to an author I’ve been fangirling lately, Jon Scalzi. He’s probably best known for writing “Old Man’s War” and for taping bacon to his cat and posting it to the interwebs. “Old Man’s War” is an absolutely mind blowing book that won lots of great awards that it totally deserved. I picked it out of the bargain bin and figured that after three months of cyber-stalking Scalzi’s blog, “Whatever”, I should probably try reading something he wrote. “Old Man’s War” is a concept novel. It builds a world that I felt like I could be living in, in the far off future. Jon Scalzi is amazing at world-building. It was the best part of “The Android’s Dream” and is also showcased in his short story “An Election”. Where Scalzi fails, at least for me, is in making characters I care about. In “Old Man’s War” the main character reads like Prince Charming from “Sleeping Beauty”. People are willing to die for him more or less because he’s the main character. He’s abnormally bright, abnormally charismatic, abnormally attractive to women, abnormally suited to alien negotiations, if it’s a positive trait, he probably has it. When I read “Old Man’s War” these things didn’t bother me. “Old Man’s War” is a straight up concept story, the main character exists to illustrate the concept—he doesn’t need to be more than a cardboard cutout. My problem arose when I picked up another of Scalzi’s novels, “The Android’s Dream”. The title is a clever nod to my favorite book, Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (better known as “Blade Runner”). I was disappointed to read a book about yet another Prince Charming (this time from the FBI/CIA agent with a heart of gold mold) who gets the girl with even less character. As the book dragged on, I found myself thinking something I hadn’t thought since reading Dan Brown’s “Digital Fortress”, Why won’t the main characters die? In “Digital Fortress”, I believe they survived bombs, submarines that were sinking/out of air, and an open wound in shark-infested waters. The protagonists of “The Android’s Dream” were even less likely to make it out alive, and even less likable. However, like I said above, “The Android’s Dream” also featured some really great moments in between the plot where glimpses of this amazing future peaked in. Aliens in Washington D.C. live in neighborhoods similar to the ones immigrants set up in New York City with their own unique culture that is part alien and part human. For example, one particular race of aliens has a remarkable affinity for dogs, above and beyond what is ever seen between humans and dogs, despite dogs being an (obviously) Earth exclusive species.
Yesterday I downloaded “Agent to the Stars”, Scalzi’s first novel (though published after “Old Man’s War”) and read the entire thing on my shiny new kindle. And that was when I felt like I had had enough and needed to talk things out with the interwebs. Because it featured the same cookie-cutter hero with the same vaguely sassy romantic interest in a concept story that had a dull, dragging plot, and a concept that I didn’t really care for.
So that seemed a little bit like a huge rant. It kind of was. But honestly, Scalzi is a really good writer. He just doesn’t write the kind of novels I find enjoyable. I want a healthy dose of character with my concepts while he prefers to give you plot (which I can take or leave). I’ve found all of his short stories extremely enjoyable (especially the one where yogurt rules Earth) because in the short story you only get to pick one of the three elements and when push comes to shove I’ll take concept stories any day. I would strongly advise anyone who hasn’t, to read one of his short stories—several are floating around the ‘net. And if you find them enjoyable then read “Old Man’s War” because it really is a good, solid, concept novel that won a Hugo. I’d also encourage you to check out his blog, “Whatever”. It covers everything from the velvet painting of Wesley Crusher that he sent to Wil Wheaton to some remarkably sensible views on politics and budgeting. Also, bacon taped to cats.