Word of the day: misanthropy
There’s a particular style of sci-fi that I’ve been running into lately, in The Uplift War and also “Hominid”, serialized in Analog for the past four issues. The plot parts are good, the characterization is bad. (”Isn’t that all sci-fi?” the wags ask.) I don’t mind wooden characters so much, until they start preaching their own superiority over us flesh-and-blood human beings. David Brin kept it down to a dull roar, with constant, but small, jabs at us and our backwater century. Robert J. Sawyer, on the other hand, harped on it for the duration on Hominid - how wretched we are for exterminating the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger, how ignorant we are to believe in gods and big-bangs, what a bad idea agriculture was, and how much better than ours is a society in which the families of criminals are sterilized. Why don’t you just invade Poland while you’re at it?
I suppose it’s not surprising that people who hate people would be bad at characterization. Brin won a Hugo or a Nebula for his tale of teenage boy meets teenage alien girl and nothing happens. Sure there are spaceships and guerrilla war and everything, but on the character level, nothing you expect to happen happens, except with the chimps. Brin writes chimps as though they were human, and humans as though they were rocks. If you just subtracted the humans from the equation, it would have been a great book. They’re just ballast anyway.
The “Hominids” had an interesting neanderthal society, but unlike Brin’s chimps, they didn’t balance the story’s equation of missing personality. Why are all alien cultures cheesy? Tolkien created five or six races and made them believable. Why can’t sci-fi authors handle even one without descending into the familiar language of the unbelievable? Eg: “when the Two become One” - cheesy! Tolkien would have made up a word for it. Tolkien would have made the male and female subcultures more distinct - he did, in fact, with the Ents and the missing Entwives. Tolkien knew what he was doing.
It’s a good thing I have a spare LMB book to read this weekend, or I might slip into sf despair.