I am reading some classic science fiction (Foundation Triology) and have found an understanding why I didn’t enjoy science fiction as much as fantasy when I was younger. There is a trend in the genre to be plot, world, and science focused with characters only being a carrier for these things to be explored. Asimov, Heinlein, Butler, and even Douglas Adams. It generally isn’t the characters we love and quote from these authors.
Dune was an interesting books, but I didn’t connect with any specific character. The world, the politics, the exploration of different societies on different worlds feels like a core to book. Heinlein’s characters are notoriously flat and repetitive (if I read 3 Heinlein books in a row, I begin to confuse names they are so alike). Butler’s book I read was amazing and emotional, but it wasn’t the characters.
Then I compare to the fantasy I loved when I was young: Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Mary Herbert, Robert Jordan, and Orson Scott Card (yes, I’m putting Card in the fantasy category). The driving of the fan-favorite books in here ARE the characters. Robert Jordan’s world is fine, but what is the fan obsession? Aes Sedai, Moraine, Nyneve – hell years after reading the books I remember character names. I have read Butler more recently, I remember characters from Jordan more.
Now, let me be very clear here – there is nothing wrong with either approach. I am a character-driven reader.
But it makes me think about my definition of “science fiction.” I heard it once that science fiction uses science as the solution to the issue in the book. Arguably, there are a lot fewer science fiction books then – including most of the Star Wars books ever written. The Martian is the only truly science-fiction book I might put on the list with that strict definition. If I expand to “exploring science and fiction through a science-based lens” I think can include most space-based novels as science fiction.
There is also the question of escapism. Especially when I was younger, I read to escape reality. Science was too grounded. I read the occasional Star Wars novel because Star Wars was fun escape – usually. Definitely this depended on the author on the specific Star Wars novel.
Thinking even of classic fantasy – Lord of the Rings, Frankenstein, Dracula – has pretty much always focused on the characters and connected the reader to individual protagonists in way science fiction didn’t for a good bit of the twentieth century. I expect there are some great exceptions, but I am speaking of generalizations.
If you look at the names I listed above, Herbert (Dune), Butler, and Heinlein (as well as Orwell and others who are sometimes classified “science fiction” from pre-2000) trended to have deep thoughts behind the plots and characters and planets – they wanted to explore a grand human nature (Foundation is definitely doing this with the idea of mob inertia – which is interesting and a little terrifying) or societies different from our own – with different needs and challenges.
I then compare this to Wayfairer trilogy – which is 100% character based and just happens to be in space. Still exploring the question of society and needs of people – but with a focus on the personal impact rather than macro impacts. Ready Player One – another example of this cross between science fiction exploration of ideas, science, and society with the interpersonal relationships of individuals.
I love that this genre has evolved. I also am enjoying going back and being able to read these classics now that I have a better way to understand them and avoid the frustration that I can’t connect to the characters.