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Characterization and Aliens
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
I get tired of hearing some science-fiction fans saying that
characterization isn't important in SF. In point of fact, I
think it's probably more important in SF than in mainstream
fiction. After all, if the author can't characterize humans
well, he or she probably can't characterize aliens well either.
Larry Niven did some interesting, ground-breaking work in
creating fictional extraterrestrials, but his lackluster ability
to characterize humans spills over into his aliens.
Take the Kzinti. When I'm teaching SF writing, I use them as an
example of what I call "the intelligent gerbil" school of
extraterrestrials: take a terrestrial animal, stand it on its
hind legs, make it intelligent, but derive the vast majority of
its characteristics from the terrestrial animal's behaviour.
Kzinti are intelligent tigers, and that's really about 90% of all
the creativity that went into them. (Likewise, my hypothetical
intelligent gerbils live in Metropolis-like cities, powered by
erudite gerbils running around in big wheels; they sleep in piles
of cedar chips; they take water from tubes coming out of the
Niven's Puppeteers are better, in that at least they don't have
any obvious physical terrestrial analog. But they're what I call
"Spocks" take one of the many characteristics that defines a
human being's psyche, push that into the forefront to the
exclusion of everything else, and call that an alien race. For
Spock, it was stoicism, something we all have some degree of.
For the puppeteers, it was cowardice, again something we all have
some degree of. When Niven really wanted to characterize a
puppeteer, he had to make it insane (like Nessus in Ringworld),
since there was no real room for individuality in the standard
puppeteer its entire behaviour was dictated by the one
exaggerated characteristic. That's because in humans,
characterization and personality come from the proportions of
our various attributes, and the struggle between them.
One-attribute beings can't have meaningful individuality.
To see where this all falls down, and why Niven's aliens are in
reality as flat as his human characters, try to define Homo
sapiens in simplistic Nivenesque terms: "territorial omnivores
obsessed with sex." Not bad, but it leaves out so much of what
we are, and excludes hundreds of millions of individuals, that it's
hard to consider it a truly useful definition.
I'll be impressed when someone can show me an alien race that
contains within it the diversity of the human race (a race that
includes everything from Stephen Hawking to Princess Di to Adolph
Hitler to Mother Theresa to Golda Meir to Bill Cosby to
Ursula Le Guin to Hirohito to Confucius to Jack the Ripper)
and still have it come across as consistently alien. I really
don't know any SF author who has pulled that off yet, but I'd
wager money that when it does happen it'll be done by one of us
who is lauded for his ability to characterize humans.
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