Patty Jansen: Love and Character in Hard SF

Guest post today! Say “hi” to Australian writer Patty Jansen:

Because it is almost Valentine’s Day, Marlene asked me to talk about love and character in hard SF, because these are not aspects traditionally associated with the genre.

People often accuse hard SF of being devoid of character. The writers, they say, are more interested in showing off technology than in investing in their characters. Often, they’re probably right, because one important point of hard SF is to show off the technology or science. It simply comes with the genre and has its own audience. Readers expect the tech or scientific explanations. That’s why they buy it. Hard SF without tech or science is like erotica without the sex.

That said, I dispute the notion that hard SF is by its nature devoid of character. It is not and it does not need to be. But it is true that a lot of hard SF is about the process and the science rather than the people. I’m thinking of grand epics like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which has many characters and too many character threads to follow anyone in particular. As a result, the books are about the process of colonising Mars, and use the character to illustrate that, rather than the other way around. Those books have a similar feel to large epic fantasies, say Lord of the Rings. In both books, we see snippets of interesting characterisation, but the books aren’t solely about the characters, so we spend too little time with many of them to become emotionally invested. Similarly, character suffers in all books where another aspect, rather than a personal problem, takes centre stage, whether that be technology, history or grand battles, racing cars or crime-solving. Yes, a lot of these books, especially crime, manage to squeeze a lot of character in.

The fault of creating the disconnect between reader and character lies not with the technology, or the historic facts, or the grand battles, but with the POV chosen for the novel. In hard SF, as well as in epic fantasy or historic fiction, we’ll often see almost-omniscient multi-POV tales, where the POV shifts sometimes for no reason other than to show off something, and sometimes even jumps to a character who has no other scenes in the book. In my view, that’s simply lazy writing. It’s easier to show off large schemes if you have a couple of viewpoints to describe it. But it’s not real life, where we are limited to one viewpoint. Every time a novel adds a POV character, it takes a further step away from the readers’ connection with the characters.

In novels within hard SF or epic fantasy that restrict POV, you immediately get a very different feel. In Stephen Baxter’s Titan, I was impressed not just with the tech detail, but with the POV immersion in one of the characters, the middle-aged astronaut Paula. I’m terrible at remembering character names of novels I’ve read, and just the fact that I remember this one is telling. While reading, I got the feeling that I understood what it would be like to be locked in a tin can with six others for years, what it was like having to decide whether to give a crew member irreplaceable medicine while she was going to die anyway, and what it was like being on an intensely cold world with no hope of rescue. In fantasy, I was similarly impressed with Joe Abercrombie. Close-ness to the POV often means that the story becomes less vanilla and more gritty. The characters worry not just about the evil overlord, but also about frozen feet or whether or not an ill-advised jump in the sack may have led to pregnancy, and the implications.

This is something the romance and chick-lit genres understand intuitively. They are about feelings, and therefore feelings get a lot of word-space, by which time there is no room left for extra characters. Romance and chick-lit novels rarely have a large cast of POV characters (more than two being many in this case). Many are written in first person. Love is magnificent to write in first person or third limited. Love is tension. Jumping to the love interest’s POV and showing that he/she does/doesn’t reciprocate feelings reduces the tension created by a primary character falling in love. For “love” substitute anything the character feels passionate about.

When planning a novel, every time you add a POV character, it means you have less word-space for the feelings and immediate experiences of your primary character. It is a style choice that is independent of genre.


Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing hard SF, space opera and hybrid fantasy. She publishes in both traditional and indie venues. Her story This Peaceful State of War placed first in the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest and was published in their 27th anthology. Her story Survival in Shade of Orange will be published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Her novels (available at ebook venues) include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (middle grade SF),Charlotte’s Army (military SF) and books 1 and 2 of the Icefire Trilogy Fire & Ice (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005TF1B9K) and Dust & Rain (epic post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy).

Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at:http://pattyjansen.com/

2 thoughts on “Patty Jansen: Love and Character in Hard SF”

  1. I don’t get a chance to read as much hard SF, so I can’t speak on that. However, epic fantasy was touched upon and I have to admit, I agree with the statement regarding the POV matter. It does give you the little bit of opportunity to really feel vested in a character.

  2. Interesting post. I hadn’t thought of it that way, that the sheer number of characters reduces the time spent on any individual.

    My favourite hard SF writer who does “love and character” well is Catherine Asaro.

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