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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interpersonal Relationships in SF Writing

Let's talk about this article by SFWA's infamous Andrew Burt. Now, I don't much like promoting this guy, but he presents some food for thought. The basic premise is that the best books have a good deal of their text dedicated to interpersonal relationships, and little science fiction focuses on interpersonal relationships. The ones that do are often the considered the best.

Burt took a random sampling of books and did a very loose statistical analysis. The results are interesting but I feel that his method of randomly sampling pages for sentences involving relationships was iffy to say the least.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the top science fiction "musts" for books (at least the ones I've read) and movies and see if they pass the test.

Dune

Verdict: Yes

We're dealing with a sprawling dynastic epic, and that always involves relationships. Maybe not romantic relationships, but we're talking about a young prince's rise to power, after his father dies and his kingdom is devastated. His mom is there, his little sister, his dad, and an evil baron. They're all tangled in a relationship web.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Verdict: No

Some cosmic shit happening here. Origin of the species. Space travel. Alien technology. Crazy AIs. 2001 happens on a global scale, and the only memorable character is the computer villain.

Ender's Game

Verdict: Yes

It might not look like it on the surface, but Ender's Game is all about his relationship to his two siblings, which represent the angel and devil on his shoulder. His overarcing struggle is to become more like his kind sister while being forced into actions which make him more like his sadistic, power-hungry brother.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Verdict: No

It's a comedy novel. So interpersonal relationships are out the window in lieu of fourth-wall jokes and Monty Python-esque humor: Vogon poetry, improbability drives, 42. No one interacts with each other. Certainly there's potential - Arthur who likes Trillian who's "dating" self-absorbed Zaphod Beeblebrox who's cousins with Ford who's been deceiving his friend Arthur who likes Trillian who's "dating" self-absorbed Zaphod... well, you get it. The later novels try and explore this in some ways, but they aren't very good. Likewise the movie expands the potential, but that's not what Hitchhiker is about.

American Gods

Verdict: Maybe

This is a toughie. On one hand, Shadow's got significant relationships with father figure Wednesday, ex-girlfriend Laura, and former prison buddy Low-key. On the other hand, the story's about becoming involved in a far-reaching scheme, an empty war, and a sacrifice. It's about meeting fantastic people, and a lot of them are throwaway gods a la Alice in Wonderland. So use your judgement.

Neuromancer & Snow Crash

Verdict: Nope

I lumped these together because they're both fountainheads of the cyberpunk genre. Burt mentions several times in his article how William Gibson fails the relationship test. But that's just how cyberpunk is written - metal over meat. It's a characteristic of the genre and I think it's unfair to fail these books based on criteria they were never looking for.

The Time Machine

Verdict: I'll say no

It's hard to judge anything written before the baby boom by modern standards. The Time Machine is more than a hundred years old and it was written in a totally different style - the framed narrative. Framed by letters or hearsay or narrators within narrators. Heart of Darkness did the same thing. I have no idea why they wrote like this. Maybe they were trying to replicate a familiar style. Maybe they were trying to keep distance between the reader and the subject material, maybe to provide intrigue or mystery. Maybe it was the style at the time, like an onion in the belt. But seriously, the main character doesn't even have a name.

Anyway, where was I? Interpersonal relationships? I don't see it. The Eloi are macguffins. It's a science fiction adventure. They don't have any more significant a relationship than Indiana Jones has with whatever that girl's name was.

I, Robot

Verdict: No

No. In fact, they play off this trope by having the female interest be a cold, calculating, computer-like scientist (the joke is that she's the chief of robot personality development) to play off the wise-cracking, heart-of-gold detective. This I, Robot is an action/mystery.

Harry Potter and the Something of Something

Verdict: Most definitely

Harry Potter is much like Dune in this respect - a chosen one with naught but a few friends, must fight against an empire of evil. Along the way he makes allies and enemies. He goes through ups and downs of relationships - pissing off Ron and Hermione several times throughout the seven books. Plus he has leaders (Dumbledore, Snape) and underlings (Neville, Dobby) who are either manipulaters or manipulatees.

Star Wars

Verdict: Your mileage may vary

I guess it depends on what angle you want to take. There's Han Solo + Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker + Darth Vader, Chewbacca + Han Solo, C3P0 + R2D2. But these relationships seem superficial. They never get beyond the scope of the action. They're all in the 'save the world, get the girl' trope, except for Darth Vader. And as far as that arc is concerned, I'd hardly call that an interpersonal relationship along the lines of Dune or Ender's Game.

A Wrinkle in Time

Verdict: Yes, with a 'but'

The book is about Meg's journey to find her father, and on the way, she realizes that she goes through some character development. She gives up her desire to fit in, learns that she cannot know everything, and finds a happy medium. The story is about the triumph of love, and clearly, there are interpersonal relationships here. But, the journey is so unfocused on those relationships that they don't really come across. It's more about the battle between good and evil.

The War of the Worlds

Verdict: No

It's a war novel. War is a fascinating subject, and it's home to many fascinating stories about stressful relationships - those with the people back home, with your fellow soldiers, with the enemy. But in this case, the book is about the devastation of total war. It's not about the "narrator" (did Wells name anyone? No wonder he went by his initials) finding anything, but showing us stuff. Like a museum of alien invasion.

Frankenstein

Verdict: No

It's a gothic/horror story. When are those ever about relationships? It's about a guy trying to play god. Not about a guy's relationship with his father.

The Matrix

Verdict: No

Please. How shallow is Neo and Trinity's relationship? Out of nowhere she declares her love and that "resurrects" him. Then there's some hot nodule-on-nodule sex, the cycle repeats, genders reversed, then we all die. It's an action movie.

I could go on - Alien/Aliens, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes. But the answer would be "no" each time. Maybe it's not fair to include movies here, since the article was really about the book medium. But screw that, it's my blog.
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