Memorable SF Characters of the Essential Authors

Mr Wizard writes:

“So much of science fiction is soulless from a human view. And a lot of the presumptions of even major works of science fiction are laughable. There is a lot of wow in science fiction, but they rarely reach me, rarely are remotely capable achieving catharsis. Usually I can remember nothing of any of the characters.”

My comment: That SF is emotionally flat is a very common criticism of science fiction, and, unfortunately, an often merited one. Detective stories, particularly ones that concentrate on the intellectual process or police procedure of solving the crime, suffer a similar criticism.

But the sheer forgettability (not a word, but it should be) of most SF characters, particularly of early SF, is legendary. This is odd, because any competent editor will tell you that characters drive the story.

On the other hand, writers as different from each other as H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton point out the advantage of having a bland ‘everyman’ or ‘anyman’ as the hero of a wonder tale: the reader can place himself in the shoes of an everyman more easily than in some quirky or unique hero, and when the backdrop and props and plot are futuristic or fabulous and filled with spectacle and dazzle, a hero who pulls attention to himself is a distraction.

If the hero is as ordinary as Jack, the reader is aghast at how extraordinary is the giant, whether a titan from a fantasy tale, or a giant armored battle-station from a space opera.

I propose, however, a short survey of all science fiction from its origins to the present day, and an examination of how memorable the characters are, and how that has changed.

This being too great a task for one article, let me use a slight of hand instead, and only consider the characters depicted in the list I created for the 50 essential authors of science fiction. Now, this procedure is a little unfair, because it will not list memorable characters appearing in non-essential books, which perhaps include some of the most memorable characters ever.  So keep that limitation in mind as we proceed.

http://www.scifiwright.com/2012/01/the-fifty-essential-authors-of-science-fiction/

Looking over my list of 50 essential authors to read to be SF fans, I notice a peculiar dearth of memorable characters. Some of these tales, I cannot even bring the names of the protagonists to mind.

Let me use a completely subjective standard of what is memorable, namely, do I think with my skills as a writer, or those of any other obscure midlist writer of ordinary skill, could portray the particular nuances of speech and mannerism which the character shows, and have him be recognized by the reader?

Could I identify two or more dreams or main motivations pulling the character in opposite directions? This last is the crucial question. One-dimensional characters have no motivation; two-dimensional characters have a simple motivation; three-dimensional characters, as in life, have conflicts of motivation.

There is a second thing that makes characters memorable: those with no particular details given about their lives are memorable if they are archetypes. Those with particular details are memorable if the details are organic to the character, not merely arbitrary quirks. Do I know the character well enough to anticipate his taste in women, food, sports, music, politics?

Of early science fiction, characterization was almost nonexistent.

Dr. Victor Van Frankenstein. He is torn between his normal life, his fiancée, and his ambition to play God, and the evils that come when he fathers a monster but does not love it, or raise it. The conflict in the character is the central fact of the character, and he is memorable enough to have created any entire trope of his own, if not a genre. All Mad Scientists and Mad Inventors are stepchildren of Dr Frankenstein.

Captain Nemo and Robur the Conqueror. These are the archetypal mad inventors of science fiction, but having slightly more personality than their many epigones. Unlike Frankenstein, it is pride which pushes these men of genius beyond the pale.

Impey Barbacane. A halt-at-nothing Yankee. The description of the gunnery club members, maimed and dismembered from their many dangerous experiments with gunpowder, fixed this archetype in mind. Had he been a bad guy, he would have been a mad inventor.

Of H.G. Wells characters, I am afraid the only ones I find memorable are the Martians, the Selenites, or Weena the Eloi and Morlocks. But even they are memorable only as static archetypes: the Martian is the archetypal “superior being” of Victorian Darwinism. As modern men were thought of as being more refined and intelligent yet weaker than the noble savages of the Cave-Man, the Martians are creatures of immense hands and brains, the evolutionary advantages of mankind extrapolated to absurdity, occupying artificial bodies of metal, fighting machines and handling machines.

Likewise, the Selenites are buglike socialists. The Eloi are weak and useless aristocrats extrapolated to absurdity, and the Morlocks brutal workingmen. The Wells characters do not lodge in the mind like a Charles Dickens’ character. The Time Traveler does not even have a name.

Of the characters from A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay, the protagonist Maskull is an everyman with no distinguishing features aside from his luck, his strength, and his audacity. The other characters are memorable for their allegorical or symbolic value, and I would say extravagantly or outrageously memorable: I have never read a character of more divine and sublime self-sacrifice and grace than Joiwind, or more noble than Panawe, or more outrageously sensual and crass than Oceaxe, cruller than Crimtyphon, or more austere than Spadevil, and so on. But, again, while sharply vivid, these are archetypes. Oddly enough, they are archetypes apparently from Lindsay’s personal Gnostic mythos, so they are memorable to a degree because they are odd.

The books by Olaf Stabledon, LAST AND FIRST MEN or STARMAKER cannot be rated on their characters, simply because they have none. These are books of future history where whole eons are brushed past in a paragraph, so we are lucky if the races of man are memorable enough to be given personalities. I would, myself, say that they are: I can recall easily to mind the difference between the athletic biotechnicians of the Third Men, the Great Brains of the Fourth Men, the sane supremacy of the Fifth Men, the mystical Seventh Men and their wings, the pedestrian Eighth Men.

The dystopian novels of early British SF, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell and A BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley, don’t have any characters worth mentioning. Both John Savage and Winston Smith are everyman figures. Savage, being from a backward part of the globe, represents something more akin to the modern reader’s viewpoint. The everyman is on stage to be awed or appalled by the shock of these dark futures.

Let us move onto the pulp era: we strike a new archetype here. Instead of merely mad scientists or awed or appalled everyman figures, the pulps held heroes. Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith introduced us to clean-limbed fighting men of Virginia, or Gray Lensmen who were the peak and perfection of human prowess, and for superhumans somewhat nondescript.

Ironically, the most memorable SF character who stands out from the pulp era, to me, is Marc C “Blackie” DuQuesne, the arch-villain of the Skylark series, because his mental capabilities were equal to the goodguy superscientist, or fractionally inferior, but he was not a mad scientist, merely whose mind was as vast, cool and unsympathetic as that of the Martians of Wells.

E.E. Smith, however, in his Lensman series, pulled off a feat of characterization not to be equaled until Larry Niven, introducing not one but three utterly alien races, each with its own psychology and personality type, who lived up to the Campbellian challenge of showing readers an alien who thought as well as a man but not like a man: by which I mean Nedrick of Palain VII, Trigonsee of Rigel, and Worsel of Valentia. By human standards, these beings are pathologically cowardly, or bovine in their placidity, or manic-depressive in their battle-frenzy. The cleverness of the conceit here is that humans likewise, with our moral corruption and penchant for emotionalism, seem to these beings as mad as they seem to us.

I can list only two aliens from this early period of science fiction which strike me as comparably memorable: Tweel from ‘A Martian Odyssey’ by Stanley G. Weinbaum and The Mother from ‘The Moon Era’ by Jack Williamson. But, even so, I give the laurels to E.E. Smith, because his aliens have recognizable psychologies with understandable limitations. Tweel is merely odd.

As for characters from H.P. Lovecraft, I can barely recall a name aside from that of Randolf Carter, whereas his many aliens both extraterrestrial and ultradimensional — who may have indeed been gods or devils — I could rattle off like a fanboy, which, indeed I am.

One factor which makes the human characters not memorable in many of these SF works is that the aliens are so memorable. The author wants to emphasize the strangeness of the extraterrestrial in the background, and this means the human in the foreground should be the opposite of strange. When Klatuu lands in a flying saucer, he does not hide among circus freaks, costumed vigilantes or satanists escaped from a mental institution. In order for the story to work, it must be a typical suburban household he enters.

Another factor which tends toward the blandness of SF heroes, come from the tradition of ‘golden age’ SF under the editor John W. Campbell Jr., under the Big Three authors of Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt. Namely, that these men quite conscientiously set out to make a certain type of approach to life, a certain type of man, appealing to the audience. They were glorifying the technically competent man, the engineer, the scientist.

In the same way that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle determined that his Great Detective Sherlock Holmes would be a man of ascetic intellectualism, as precise and unemotional as a theorem of Pythagoras, Campbell and the Big Three presented a view of man as a creature of reason, almost as a Houyhnhnm, who solves his problems with Sherlockian detachment.

And such men tend not to be quirky or self-aggrandizing. The most we can expect from them is a wry sense of humor.

Let me contrast this Golden Age archetype with John Carter, steely gray-eyed clean-limbed fighting man of Virginia and Warlord of Barsoom. Carter describes himself in the opening chapter in this way:

“I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later. My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes. However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.

[...] whether I thought or acted first I do not know, but within an instant from the moment the scene broke upon my view I had whipped out my revolvers and was charging down upon the entire army of warriors, shooting rapidly, and whooping at the top of my lungs.”

In other words, John Carter, coming suddenly by moonlight upon an entire armed camp of some five hundred ferocious Apache braves, instead of retreating or thinking of retreat, pulls a ‘Rooster Cogburn’ with guns in both fists and reins in teeth, and leads a one-man cavalry charge. Without, so he testifies, ‘recourse to tiresome mental processes.’

John Carter is fundamentally a man of passion rather than a man of intellect. In one scene in A PRINCESS OF MARS, he deserts his post, and cuts down four guardsmen in the armed forces in which he himself has taken service. He voices only a momentary regret: “They were brave men and noble fighters, and it grieved me that I had been forced to kill them, but I would have willingly depopulated all Barsoom could I have reached the side of my Dejah Thoris in no other way.” Lucky he was armed with a longsword rather than the Death Star. Important safety tip: do not get between John Carter of Virginia and the incomparable Deja Thoris of Helium.

No character in any tale by Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt, to the best I can recollect, kills a single mook, either in open combat or ambuscade, while driven by unconquerable masculine passion for their true love.

Heinlein’s protagonists tend all to be the single archetypal Heinlein character: the eager young boy who grows into a wry but all-competent jack-of-all-trades and eventually into a wry and crusty old man, usually marrying a lusty jill-of-all-trades nudist redhead somewhere along the way. Asimov’s protagonists are much the same, but with less wryness and no redhead. Van Vogt’s protagonists are much the same, but with no wryness at all, sometimes with amnesia, and he evolves into a superhuman rather than a crusty old man.

We can remember the personality-free personalities of Asimov’s Robots, and the strangely un-Campbellian altruism and nobility of A.E. van Vogt’s superhumans, Jommy Cross the Slan or Walter S. Delany the Immortal, and I think a number of van Vogt’s monsters are memorable, the Coeurl, the Ezwal and the Rull.

And yet the blandness, the lack of any distinguishing personality characteristics, of most of these writers is almost astonishing. Perhaps the only memorable character in the entire canon of Asimov stories is Bayta Darell; perhaps the only memorable character in Heinlein is Podkayne of Mars.

Why should this be? The uncomfortably non-unisex fact of the matter is that in order to portray a female character, the writer must make her non-generic, such as Bayta who pities the Mule, or Podkayne who dreams of being a star-captain, and dies (or is severely wounded) while going back to save a pet.

(Feminists may wish to make women as bland and interchangeable and replaceable as males, but, alas, nature and evolution are against them. The default assumption is that males fight and female love, and the nature of reality is such that life and love is automatically more interesting than death and bloodshed. The female character, if she is feminine at all, automatically has an additional dimension and a depth of character males do not naturally display.)

If I may let slip a professional secret: when I had to portray A.E. van Vogt’s amnesiac superhuman Gilbert Gosseyn in my own NULL-A CONTINUUM, I had to deduce something about his values and virtues, his preferences and personality on stage. Aside from being a trained Null-A, and espousing the values of that philosophy, what was their to him?

I took the hint dropped in chapter one of WORLD OF NULL-A which establishes that Gosseyn, before coming to the City of the Machine for the great games, had implanted the false memory of being a fruit farmer, and so I decided (or deduced) that Gosseyn must share a farmer’s love of the soil, steady work and hard, and have a trace of a rural man’s mistrust of big city folk and their ways.

But he has as little internal conflict over clashing goals as that other perfectly sane and rational science fiction superscientist, John Galt. There is a fine line between an archetypal character and a one-dimensional one. It was much easier to come up with a personality for Patricia Hardie or Enro the Red, since I could use personality types van Vogt had established in his other works.

But this is a roundabout way of admitted that, much as I admire the man’s work, the superhumans of Van Vogt were simply not fully three-dimensional characters. Snatch up Captain Maltby of the Mixed Men and throw him into the situation of Jommy Cross, lost in Centropolis and hunted by the secret police; or snatch up Jommy Cross the Slan and place him in charge of the Weapon’s Shops of Imperial Isher — would either character act or talk any differently than the one he is replacing?

In the Silver Age, at last, we start getting some characters who are at least two-dimensional or moreso. Nicholas van Rijn from Poul Anderson, Gully Foyle (“I kill you filthy, Vorga!”) from Alfred Bester do not fit into any easy stereotype, and do not fade quickly from the memory.

I have a personal fondness for the characters of Keith Laumer, but I must admit they are, for the most part, pastiches of hard boiled detectives. The comedic super-diplomat Retief is memorable merely for the humor of his yarns.

Then we suddenly run into a rich stratum of characters who are fully developed with fully realized personalities: I will mention Sam from Zelazny’s LORD OF LIGHT, or the complex and bitter Corwin of Amber, or the more complex and more bitter Elric of Melnibone, or Jim Nightshade and William Halloway from Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, but I will give laurels to Glenly Ai, the Mobile of the Ekumen on Gethen, or to Therem Harth rem ir Estraven from LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Ursula K LeGuin was simply better at portraying human complexity in characters than any of her peers.

At about this same time, Cordwainer Smith burst on the science fiction scene, making a remarkable impact for a relatively small number of short stories, and, oddly enough, his protagonists were not heroes in the classical sense, but something much more rare and precious: human beings. No matter how odd their outward forms, scanners or underpeople, they had human souls. It is no coincidence that Smith sold his work outside of the circle of John W Campbell Jr.

At the same time, aliens started getting more complex portrayals: let me mention C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur as an example.  The Kzin and the Puppeteers of Larry Niven’s Known Space stories parallel the warlike nature of the Valentians and the cowardice of the Palainians as seen in the Lensmen series.

In cyberpunk stories we then come across a stratum of characters so vivid and fully realized that some of them droop over into the territory of anti-heroes, which unfortunately makes them a bit un-memorable again. It may just be my advancing age, but I cannot recall the names of any characters penned by William Gibson or Bruce Sterling. Neal Stephenson rather amusingly named his hero protagonist Hiro Protagonist, and made him a pizza-delivery samurai.

At about this same time, complexity and moral ambiguity make a terrific impact on the characters in that brother genre of science fiction, superhero comics: Alan Moore’s THE WATCHMAN was a graphic novel in the true sense of the word, a novel as complex and rich as anything on the printed page, but told by means of illustrated panels.

Of all the authors listed as ‘essential’ I must award the most fully realized characters, the most realistic, human, and at the same time strange in the way only humans can be, to Gene Wolfe. No one has ever displayed a more masterful command of character’s voice. No character is simple, and none easily forgotten.

I will mention only a few: Severian the Torturer, who is exiled for the crime of pity, and haunted by a stolen relict from a higher universe; and Horn, who seeks across a vampire-infest world for a man who may or may not be himself, hating his own son yet loving his son’s unnatural impersonator; Patera Silk, perhaps the only convincing portrait of an extraordinarily good man I have ever write in any genre; and a convincing portrait of the extraordinarily unrepentant Bax Dun, the sorcerer in the empty house in a small town. Like the house itself, he is not what he seems, and is bigger on the inside than out.

As of the modern day, I would say the science fiction has shed its need for simplistic and un-memorable protagonists. Science fiction is the mainstream.

 

About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.
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83 Responses to Memorable SF Characters of the Essential Authors

  1. Noah D says:

    Ah, Ms. Cherryh. While the Chanur novels are dear to me, her ones dealing with humans have, I think, the best characterizations. Signy Mallory, righteous and flawed, a high noblewoman of her predatory, feudal class – Norway her duchy, ruled from her throne upon the bridge, staring across the stars at brooding, heirless King Conrad and his brutal vulture lords, Porey and Keu…

    Yes, I loved Downbelow Station, why do you ask?

    The gentlest of corrections: the race is hani, Chanur is a clan within the race.

    I cannot remember a single human character from what Asimov I have read – none of them felt human. I could not imagine them being ridiculously romantic, a hesitant lover, or cheering at a child’s sporting event. Heinlein was, it pains me to admit, much the same. Juan Rico, he of the plotless novel, is the only one I could think of who would do those things. The rest were far too wry and self-centered. Perhaps Podkayne would as well, were she to have grown up (in my world, she did).

  2. Robert Mitchell Jr says:

    I think there’s a bit of “Red Herring” going on here. Science fiction has some wonderful characters, but that is not, I think, what Mr. Wizard is talking about. The “Mainstream”, according to current English departments at the “better” schools, is unreadable stuff like Updike’s Rabbit series. Pure repulsive “Characterization”, and no plot. Beloved by the Eaters of Dust because it is so obtuse, so hard to read. You know, that sad little book by James Joyce…. Science Fiction, thank God, will lose this fight, for customers like plot, which the “Mainstream” tossed aside years ago, lest the Bourgeoisie forget their place….

    • When I say Science Fiction is the mainstream, I mean we are carrying on the tradition from Homer through Virgil and Dante and Ariosto and Shakespeare, a tradition the moderns threw away with both hands. New Wave attempt to impersonate modern ideas of subhuman characterization or verbal stream-of-consciousness chaos like James Joyce have found no home in SFF. The readers will not lower themselves to it. Instead, the lack of characterization which characterized early SFF and pulp has been corrected. I suggest that Gene Wolfe is the finest author alive today in America, and I mean in any genre, mainstream or no.

      • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

        I understood that. I’m just not sure that’s being shared by Mr. Wizard. Certainly many of your peers have complained of a “Sci-Fi ghetto”…..

        • Tom Simon says:

          There was genuine injury behind the complaints of ghettoization for many years. Both print and electronic media were tightly controlled by cartels, whose corporate overlords lived in New York and took their culture from the infamous New York Literary Establishment; and the N. Y. L. E. dismissed all imaginative fiction as beneath notice, in keeping with the proto-Modernist dicta laid down by W. D. Howells as editor of The Atlantic. (Don’t laugh. A magazine editor could wield incredible power over the wider culture, in the days when a working man earned a dollar a day and the magazine in question paid up to five dollars per word.)

          Dave Wolverton, who was brought up to be a follower of the Modernist tradition and gloriously defected, writes about Howells’s influence (and the subsequent history of the ‘SF Ghetto’) here.

          Since the major book-reviewing publications were all based in New York, as were all the most prestigious and well-heeled publishers, the coterie founded by Howells had and retained a vastly disproportionate influence on what was published and reviewed, based largely upon their ability to ostracize heterodox practitioners from ‘literary’ society. If you said good things about that Buck Rogers nonsense, you didn’t get writing gigs in The New Yorker, you didn’t get reviewed in the Times or the New York Review of Books, and — oh, woe! — you didn’t get invited to cocktail parties with the Movers and Shakers anymore. A similar movement, only less tyrannical because less successful, grew up round the nucleus of the Bloomsbury group in London: whence came many ignorant attacks on the likes of Tolkien and Lewis. The Inklings were all of them literate and literary men par excellence, much more so than their detractors the Bloomsberries; but they were not members of the right club, and not present in London where the literary reviews were written and edited.

          Nowadays, matters are otherwise. First the Internet democratized the process of book-reviewing, and destroyed the N. Y. L. E.’s cartel power; then it broke the financial power of the newspaper chains, and destroyed their capacity to devote pages of print to something as unprofitable as a book-review page for snobs; and now it is breaking the power of the publishers themselves. It is not a great exaggeration to say that anyone can publish a book, sell it to anyone, and get it reviewed anywhere — outside of the shrinking incestuous world of the dead-tree reviews. There are still people and publications that have showy attacks of the vapours whenever a raygun or a dragon trespasses upon their virginal notice, but they no longer have the power to make the public take them seriously.

          In the end, the ghetto turned out to be a TARDIS. It is bigger on the inside than on the outside, and most of those who read for fun have come in to join the party.

    • It is part of it, but there is more to it than this. It could be a fault of my phrasing. We can dispense with the Updikes and Joyces – to the garbage can where garbage belongs. The world can be ugly enough without being asked to contemplate the glorification of it for its own sake in the name of “art”. So I wasn’t addressing that.

      The flatness of character is a part of which Mr. Wright actually brought up several significant, and justifiable, reasons of which I hadn’t even contemplated.

      The other aspect is a flatness of general story drama and catharsis. [Note - I have a soap opera-ish love/hate relationship with science fiction - sometimes even the COPS have to come out and settle things between us.]

      Take (mainly because I have recently read it, and it stands out as a perfect example) Clark’s Childhood’s End. Overlords take over earth, impose rule and a quasi-utopia which meets little resistance. After one hundred years of this it is revealed that the Overlords were overseeing the evolutionary shift of the human to the post-human – which was to be non-material masters of material joining a Overmind of which the Overlords were its servant. Turns out the Overlords were awaiting a new generation of young children to start exhibiting signs and then they would be shuttled off, forever stripped from their parents, to some island (Australia I think). There they would finish their evolution to spirit or whatever and in the process destroy every human and non-human life on the planet and eventually the planet itself.

      Sounds like prime material for conflict, no? No, not in Clark’s hands. As far as I know only Hitler’s concentration camps were able to break the human spirit down far enough to reach such abject docility as Clark’s zombies. These zombies who apparently accepted rule with little fight, let their children go with less emotion than if I lost my dog (a LOT less emotion in fact) – I have misplaced my wallet with more dramatic resonance. There was more emotion in the destruction of Alderaan and that isn’t even a real planet!

      Now, one can say that Clark wasn’t interested in telling a story of rebelling humans, or the children fighting their own cursed evolution that would cause them to murder their own parents, or the Overlords seeking to escape the grip of the Overmind, or many other possibilities – the fact is he should have been interested in telling one of those stories – any but the one he did write.

      Just imagine, for a moment, the dramatic possibilities.

      There are many exceptions to the Clark example, but there is a lot of stories out there written by little more than lab techs with pens. A lot of times I get the impression the author expects me to finish the book, close the cover and say in a robotic voice, “that was interesting” and mechanically pick up the next book. Again, as Mr. Wright noted in the issue of character, there are exceptions, a number of them too.

      Take an example of the opposite but outside the genre from what used to be literature. Take Victor Hugo, I use him because he was a great dramatist. Anyone read his novel Ninety – Three? I am not going to relate the plot, but if you haven’t read it, well shame. At the end when Gauvain’s head is severed, the terrible sound is answered when his arch-enemy, Cimourdain, shoots himself in the heart. It is a familiar, soul wrenching cathartic experience that Hugo manages to pull in most of his works.

      Or when Quasimodo kills his benefactor, and the gypsy finds her mother, the woman who has hated her for so long and has just effectively killed her. The same effects are played in Les Miserables, and The Man Who Laughs.

      Now Hugo is an extreme version, and I am not saying that science fiction authors have to make me blubber at crucial turns or ending (power to them if they can!). But I at least expect something between him and Clark. The more values, the more emotional and spiritual conflict that can be tapped the better – no matter the genre. But to have the spectacle that only science fiction can give with dramatic conflict, and catharsis, well that couldn’t be beat!

      I sense it may be a mind/body problem with some of the authors themselves. They can easily grasp E = mc2, but Mother loves Child is some mysterious jabbering.

      • Victor Hugo is an excellent example of passionate storytelling done right.

        • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

          But not really relevant to the discussion, which is about how Science Fiction is lacking in characterization. Sturgeon’s law; “ninety percent of everything is crap” comes to mind. Hugo is good but we are talking about averages, not “The Best”.

          • I think the issues are related – flat characterization and flat dramatic effect. I used Hugo to highlight the issue by means of extremes.

            Clark’s Childhood’s End being the extreme of emotional deadness on one end, and Hugo being at the other extreme. And, on average, science fiction is closer to Clark than Hugo. I would like to see it a little more in Hugo’s direction.

            Was no one else appalled at the technical dryness at which Clark disposed of humanity?

            • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

              Yes, one John C. Wright comes to mind, and he wrote at length about it. His answer seems to me to be definitive, that he was responding to C.L. Lewis’s books, and since he was going for a non-Catholic answer, was forced into a Gnostic story. Your complaints in context are Catholic ones, which if answered, would invalidate the reason the book was written. So it goes.

            • I was appalled that Clarke disposed of humanity, technical dryness or not. I can understand a man who regards Darwinian evolution as the best theory to account for the origin of species, and I can understand a man who stoically contemplates that mankind in the abyss of time will one day evolve into something else (eloi or morlocks); but I cannot understand someone who joyfully contemplates that mankind in the abyss of time will one day evolve into something else, disembodied inhuman ghosts with Way Cool Mind Powers, and cheers for the death of every man, woman and child of his species. It would be like a Norse pagan contemplating Ragnarok and rooting for the wolves and giants and sea serpents.

              But, yes, the idea that mankind would just lie down like tired dogs and die after the aliens take their children away is absurd and appalling. On the other hand, I have heard that the suicide rates among primitive natives conquered by white men is very high.

    • WyldCard4 says:

      There is a lot of truth to that, but there are occasional interesting novels I have read in English classes. Admittedly, largely creative writing classes as that is my focus. The more pure “English” classes might be worse. I would argue the single main issue is “magical realism” which is often interesting in specific instances, but weaker than either realistic or speculative fiction. Magical realism is literally defined as bad fantasy, fantasy that ignores the tropes of internal consistency.

      Outside of that, I do find a lot of it fairly interesting. Not my own preference to read it, but I do recognize is as the equal of a lot of genre fiction I read.

      James Joyce absolutely sucks though. There is nothing redeeming in him.

  3. Sean Michael says:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    I would like to suggest as one example of a memorable alien race the winged Diomedeans of Poul Anderson’s 1958 novel, THE MAN WHO COUNTS (the title he preferred to the ghastly WAR OF THE WING MEN). It’s my belief Anderson demonstrated very well how how evolution and culture showed how much the Flock and Fleet had in common and how they also differed. THE MAN WHO COUNTS is also very good at how both the Diomedeans and human characters are far from being bland and one sided. Anderson was also inspired to writing this early masterpiece of his by Clement’s MISSION OF GRAVITY.

    With some diffidence, I would urge on you greater care with your spelling. Regrettably, I see a large number of them in your essays. Even when context makes your meaning plain, it’s still jarring. Also, sometimes you use “their” when you meant “there.”

    Apologetically, Sean M. Brooks

    • If you point out spelling errors to me, I will thank you and correct them. When I reread old essays, and I see errors, I correct them. But, unfortunately, this is the internet, and I am a terrible speller. You are reading unedited first drafts, not professionally published articles.

      • Sean Michael says:

        Dear Mr. Wright:

        “Unedited first drafts,” understood. Glad I didn’t seem too snarky, pointing out the spelling errors I noticed in your essays.

        Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  4. Dan says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the comments on this post; it should be quite interesting.

    Mr. Wright, you do an injustice to Ms. Shelley. The central, memorable character in Frankenstein is not the scientist but his creation. The Creature’s is the personality that, for better and worse, pervades the novel; Victor is an ancillary, an everyman in spite of his scientific genius.

    Some will think that the movies improved on the novel by making the central character SHUT UP. But you can’t deny that he is the central character.

    • Injustice it may be, but I sort of thought that the monster in Frankenstein, Adam, was an everyman, an Adam as he would be if he were created by a creator who did not love him. He learns of human life and language by peering at men and their doings at a distance; he rises up, as at last he must against a loveless father figure, like Oedipus.

      Using my admittedly subjective test, I do not think I could picture Adam and deduce his taste in women or politics or music.

      This is not just because Adam is a savage! Compare him with Tarzan or Mowgli or Caliban, particularly with Caliban as portrayed in the poem by John Donne: now HE has a personality.

      But maybe I am overlooking some important scene in the book.

      • Tom Simon says:

        Of course, Sir, you cannot guess at poor Adam’s tastes in women or politics, for he was never allowed to mix with men and women sufficiently to acquire such things. I should say that he was a very vivid and dramatic character, but a horribly abnormal one; that he was vivid because he was abnormal; that he is a terrible portrait of a man deprived, not only of his Creator’s love, but of all other loves and loyalties, yet fully capable of perceiving what he had been deprived of, and tragically yearning to earn some of it for himself.

        What makes him not a mere Everyman in this situation is the particular emotional palette Mrs. Shelley drew upon to portray him. Frankenstein’s Monster is, at bottom, moved by the same desire as Pinocchio in Collodi’s tale, or the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or Andrew Martin in Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man. But nobody would ever mistake any of those five characters for any other. Adam is Romantic and tragic and full of Sturm und Drang; Pinocchio retains a cheerfulness and sweetness of spirit that, at times, amount to saccharine; the two Oz characters have a wistful charm born of misplaced hope, along with a measure of truly heroic pluck. Andrew Martin has, really, very little of any of those qualities, because after all, he is an Asimov character; but in this case it works, because the emphasis is on his wanting to become human, not merely to be accepted as human, and he has to learn how to do it from very unpromising beginnings.

        On that basis, I think we have to give Mrs. Shelley a pass on characterization. She did very well, despite labouring under severe limitations imposed by the nature of the story. Perhaps the best proof is that once I had read Frankenstein, I could not only keep Adam distinct from all those other characters who wanted to be human, but from the lumbering green lummox of a Monster that clunked his way through the films and became a trope unto himself.

  5. Alan Silverman says:

    The female character, if she is feminine at all

    I have not been following you for all that long a time, so I am curious: what is it that you mean by “feminine”? Do you have an entry where you have expounded on it at all?, as I would very much like to read it.

    (I ask partly because for whatever reason, my stories seem to be flush with women, and I would very much like to make them more realistic and more interesting)

    • deiseach says:

      Perhaps, as an example, Asimov’s Susan Calvin, whom he managed simultaneously to present in a terrible fashion and yet still make her (for me, at least) an interesting character.

      Probably it was the attitude of the times which he also went along with, but it did annoy me (as a female in her late teens/early twenties reading the stories) that she was dismissed as “yeah, great at her job, but a misanthrope who puts all her thwarted maternal feelings into her interactions with robots; she was too plain to get a man and too smart for her own good, so naturally she went into robotics where she wouldn’t have to deal with people.”

      The same traits she possessed and attitudes she exhibited, had they been possessed and exhibited by Sam (rather than Susan) Calvin, would never have been remarked upon because they would have been unremarkable; there would have been no talk of Sam’s plain appearance, with the intimation that he was too ugly to attract a woman, or that his intelligence and choice of career were only a second-best to the marriage and fatherhood he could never have (none of Asimov’s smart young men, if I remember correctly, ever sat around pining to be husbands and fathers and lamented that instead they had to make do with being scientists and astronauts and asteroid miners). It did, unfortunately, come across as “Men don’t like smart women”, which may not have been what Isaac intended to say, but it’s what it sounded like. Grumpy, reclusive, brilliant Sam Calvin would have been a “character” and respected for his work, while grumpy, reclusive, brilliant Susan Calvin was pitied as an inveterate old maid.

      In short, sir, while women and men do have different tastes and aptitudes, a good practice might be to examine your female character as if she were a male character; would you have a man’s career summed up as not the ground-breaking work of a unique intelligence but instead a second-best consolation prize for not being handsome enough to get a woman? Would a man’s conversation, even with colleagues and with other men, revolve primarily around breaking up with his girlfriend/his relationship with his current girlfriend/looking for a new girlfriend? You don’t have to turn all your women into Xenas and Buffys, but women do go into careers because they have the capacity and the intelligence for them, some of us don’t want/are not called to the vocation of marriage and children and are happily unromantic, so we don’t sob into our pillows about another Valentine’s Day gone past and no significant other, and we can have work-related conversations with other women that are not about the fine guys in the office.

      • deiseach says:

        All the above is to say that as long as you avoid the Scylla of the man-hating feminazi caricature on the one hand, and the Charybdis of the helpless shrinking violet on the other, you won’t need to worry about realistic and interesting female characters.

        The woman homicide detective who spends her work days seeing the very worst of human nature, and who can deal with it as a professional, who goes home to her family and loves that her husband has bought her one of these; the receptionist who accessories everything in pink and is up on all the latest celebrity gossip who can change her own car tyre (but much prefers it if a big, strong man does it for her) – these women exist.

        Or my own mother, who was tough and capable and afraid of neither man, dog, nor divil – except that mice made her scream and jump up on the couch to get away from them, and she left it to us kids to take the traps with the poor little mouse corpses outside for disposal :-)

      • “…a good practice might be to examine your female character as if she were a male character…”

        This is precisely what I shall never do: the idea, if you will forgive me, is absurd. Allow me to suggest an opposite tack: if you can examine your female character as if she is a male character and detect no difference in the presentation, you are not portraying the character correctly.

        Men and women are radically and fundamentally different; but even if they were not, society should acculturate them to be as different as possible in dress, deportment, and even language, so as to increase the differences hence increase the drama and romance of life. Unisexuality is misery.

        When I examine the women I know in real life as opposed to the picture of womankind the feminists wish to impart, I do not find any hungering to enter the rat race and be a good provider for her husband and children-in-daycare, to crush their enemies see them driven before them, and to hear the lamentation of their women, which I see in the real men I really know.

        I have met many bitter career women and very few bitter career men. I have met many women who, when the moment came to leave the work force and raise babies, were delighted beyond words at the chance. There was one young lady I once worked with every day who, when she announced she was retiring from Cube Hell to see to domestic life, someone joked “so are you going to end up in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant?” She smiled not just joyfully but radiantly and said, “Oh, God, I hope so, yes! I can’t wait!”

        Perhaps she was kidding, but it did not look like kidding to me.

        Now, I admit this is not a scientific sampling, and perhaps more women buy FORBES than buy MODERN BRIDE magazine. Perhaps as many girls read Execution novels starring mob-smasher Mack Bolan as read Harlequin romances with flowing-haired Fabio on the cover. All I can say is that I have not met such women.

        Nor have I seen a single romance cover where the man is swooning over the woman’s brawny yet cruelly handsome arm, or kneeling and clutching her brawny yet cruelly handsome leg. Make of that what you will.

        Why the important work of raising the next generation is regarded as demeaning and low, whereas the unimportant work of trenching a ditch or driving a truck or shuffling papers or pushing electrons through a computer is regarded both as dignified and requiring intelligence is a mystery.

        No one has been able to explain this paradox to me. The closest thing to an explanation I ever got was blithering cultural-Marxist nonsense about power, empowerment, powering up power, and powerlusting power-seeking. The poor fools did not realize that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

        In any case, I shall never write any stories supporting this false Marxistoid narrative. I think telling women that careers will make them happy is a lie, and that nurturing new life is unrewarding is a lie. I think telling women that they should feel the same vainglorious glee at smashing open the skull of an enemy with a hammer as a man feels is a lie. Telling women equality means entering the workforce is a lie.

        Telling them to mistrust men and not to rely on them for support is tantamount to telling them not to get fully married but only partly married, to hold back her free and equal inner self, sterile and remote from her bridegroom, and this is not merely bad advice, but a sure-fire formula for misery and divorce.

        I do think that domestic life is not for every woman. Entering holy orders is an honorable option.

        • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

          It doesn’t even work under their postulates. It would be one thing if Susan Calvin was a stereotype, but she is almost unique, which would seem to be good characterization, yes? As opposed to the actual worn out stereotype of the beautiful warrior-princess super genius (Last seen in John Carter). Not hearing a lot of complaints about that from the PC police. But Susan Calvin pains them like an old wound. Perhaps a little too honest for comfort?

        • Alan Silverman says:

          Men and women are radically and fundamentally different;

          I think this is the crux of my question: in what ways are they so different? I have always been told that there are relatively minor differences between the sexes: the obvious physical ones, some attitude changes due to hormone levels, and then interests that have been socialized by capital-S Society.

          I have often wondered if what I’ve been told is right; you present a statement to the contrary. Might I inquire for a deeper explanation (or at least, a hearty finger-point to a rational exposition)?

          but even if they were not, society should acculturate them to be as different as possible in dress, deportment, and even language, so as to increase the differences hence increase the drama and romance of life. Unisexuality is misery.

          I don’t understand this statement. Well, I mean, I understand the words, but I don’t understand the reasoning behind them. Why is unisexuality misery? Why is it important for life to have drama; wouldn’t a drama-free life of content simplicity be better (hence the supposed Chinese curse of being born in interesting times)?

          I certainly hope these questions don’t sound as stupid or misguided as I fear they might. Reading this blog (and its comments) has presented to me a great many things I’ve not encountered before, and I find myself quite beset with curiosity.

          • David_Marcoe says:

            I think this is the crux of my question: in what ways are they so different? I have always been told that there are relatively minor differences between the sexes: the obvious physical ones, some attitude changes due to hormone levels, and then interests that have been socialized by capital-S Society.

            Genetically, there’s an entire chromosome’s difference, but there are also differences in the structure of the brain, such as with the corpus callosum, which links the left and right hemispheres of the brain. In men it’s like a dirt road and in women like a six-lane highway. But the best way I have on hand of illustrating a difference is with one simple example: Imagine a person crying and their friend sees this and comes up to ask them what the matter is. Men will tend to ask “what’s the problem?,” while women will tend to ask, “Are you okay?” Both are moved by concern for their friend and both are motivated to help, but approach it from entirely different angles.

            The problem with the socialization theory is that it begs the question. Do differences between the sexes arise from socialization, or are differences in socialization an accommodation to differences between the sexes? If the former, why? Why socialize those differences? What utility is there? The answers to those questions begin to sound an awful lot like a conspiracy theory–or a Marxist theory of history–when you put the pieces together. And the social and psychological research that I’ve seen periodically pop up has shown persistent cross-cultural trends which suggest differences between the sexes.

            I don’t understand this statement. Well, I mean, I understand the words, but I don’t understand the reasoning behind them. Why is unisexuality misery? Why is it important for life to have drama; wouldn’t a drama-free life of content simplicity be better (hence the supposed Chinese curse of being born in interesting times)?

            The whole essence of a romance novel–or romance in storytelling–is the clash and interplay between masculine and feminine energy. Now try and imagine writing a good romance with androgyny. For that matter, try and imagine writing a good story, in any genre, without using traditional male and female archetypes. And since storytelling is “life with the boring bits cut out,” I might suggest the results translate.

            • Nostreculsus says:

              …this cognitive elite have eliminated literacy, institutions schools, libraries, organized religion, and marriage, saying that they have liberated the masses from the tools of control imposed on them by the old ruling class.

              This sounds like the ideology of the Khmer Rouge, so I suggest you look at memoirs of people who grew up under that regime to see what might motivate them. In Chanrithmy Him’s “When Broken Glass Floats”, the narrator is motivated by a sense of strong family loyalty. There is also a desire to honour the father, who was a born entrepreneur. So, your character could remember what the regime did to some beloved figure who had a knack of bartering for scarce goods, and was kind to your protagonist.

              Other details might be cribbed from Korean experience. Young North Korean escapees are kept in astonishing ignorance of conditions, even in China, but the elders remember a time when there was fuel and even electricity. But the absolute darkness at night confers a sense of privacy and even freedom absent in the day.

              People who lived under Communism are amazed that George Orwell could imagine details of that system, without ever living under such a regime. He could extrapolate from his Spanish Civil War comrades. But I suspect you have not his genius, so -

              Plagiarize! Plagiarize!
              Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,
              Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
              So don’t shade your eyes,
              But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize…
              Only be sure always to call it please research.

              Addendum: This is a reply to your comment#8 below. I clearly don’t understand how to use to reply button properly.

              • David_Marcoe says:

                Thank you for the recommendations. I had been reading Mao: The Unknown Story, which is a treasure trove for documentation on the “innovations” that Mao contributed to the running of a police state (the man had a genius for acquiring power, but little else). Once you get the Marxist logic down, it’s surprisingly easy to extrapolate measures they would use to control the population, but the human response–personal and communal–is where history and eyewitness accounts are especially valuable. That’s what takes it from thought experiment to dramatic fiction.

              • Tom Simon says:

                That was the most perfect and appropriate use of a Tom Lehrer quote that I have ever seen. I award you six Internets!

            • Alan Silverman says:

              Interesting. I am curious to know more about the effects of the size of the corpus callosum, especially why its size would cause a difference ins word choice, as the mechanism of that link eludes me entirely. Can you point me to anything extrapolating this, and giving more information?

              I am not sure what part of socialization theory begs the question; what is the premise that’s being assumed just to prove itself?

              Marxist theory of history

              I keep hearing this (or at least, variations on “Marx”) thrown around this blog and its comments as a pejorative. Yet, I am rather unsure of its meaning in many cases (not that I’ve read much of Marx, to be fair), and this in particular is one of them. What do you mean by a Marxist theory of history?

              the clash and interplay between masculine and feminine energy

              This is the part where I am to an extent confused. What are masculine and feminine energies? What identifies them? How are they different from each other? I have always been told there is no difference; now I hear there is one, and while I might see some glimmer of a point, I am unable to verbally express it. Can you point me to something that more clearly defines the differences between the two?

          • Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

            “…there are relatively minor differences between the sexes: the obvious physical ones…”
            I suppose this is a joke about the lies hammered on us for nearly half a century.
            The physical differences between male and female, since they are obvious, are not minor, and they are a sure sign that what is not obvious is also widely different.

            I stopped to believe the lies about culturally inculcated differences in taste when I observed a little boy (less than 2 years old) at play. He was raised in a flock of females (unmarried mother, grandmother, female cousins and daughters of friends) but he demonstrated a fondness for trucks and truck noise I found too extraordinary to have been inculcated in the brief exposition time he had to those things.

            • Alan Silverman says:

              ‘Tis no joke. When I think of the physical differences between me and my wife, very little actually comes to mind. We both have one head (with two eyes, two ears, a standard array of teeth, and a nose), two arms, ten fingers, ten toes, two lungs, one stomach, a liver, two legs, the same number of ribs, the same number of vertebrae, the same number of chromosomes (even if one of my 46 is half the size of her analogous one), and so on. The parts between our legs differ, and she has a few extra parts of plumbing in her body that I don’t, and she has much more fat in the chest than I do (though I’m given to understand that’s pretty much entirely a function of estrogen levels). Our hormone balances are slightly different: I have more testosterone in my body than she does, and she has more estrogen.

              So yes, I would consider the physical differences minor, given how much is the same. Or are you suggesting that I should rather liken her to a horse for the differences being so great?

              I am not sure I understand what the truck anecdote has to do with socialization, though. Are you suggesting that boys have a genetic understanding of the sounds that trucks make, and women don’t? My wife has told me of her doing the exact same thing when young; are you to suggest that she is not a woman because of it?

              It is all very confusing; is there an easy way to tell if an activity is for boys or for girls? I have always been told there is no difference; is there somewhere that expounds in more detail what the differences are?

          • MintaMarieMorze says:

            Mr. Silverman, I know I’m taking a chance with this, but I want to try it anyway. This may seem to be an odd recommendation when we are discussing science fiction, but if you want to know how memorable women characters are written, and how they can be experienced with satisfaction by the reader, there are a few books I can recommend that you can read. Just as writers have to read in the genre in which they mean to write, they may also branch out to titles in other genres just to get a sense of how it feels to be “inside” different characters they know they will need to populate their stories.

            Because these 6 books below are not science fiction, I think you can use them to see—in a straightforward, clear presentation—significant differences between men and women that are viewpoint and behavioral differences. Warning: These books are absolutely NOT PC, NOT feminist, NOT sexually graphic, and, although the Stewart books are mid-twentieth century, they are NOT formulaic “modern” romances. The women in these books are facing situations outside their normal lives. They are particularly feminine, and the men are particularly the “everyman” masculine hero. These men and women, mutatis mutandis, could stride successfully through any science fiction book.

            Although each of these writers have written a large number of books, I picked these six titles specifically because:

            * They are good stories, with actual plots, not “just” romances. A man deeply committed to writing some women characters in his science fiction should be able to work his way through these books in a few days, with grit and determination, remembering always that he’s suffering for his craft.

            * They are written by women of insight and humor.

            * They are well-written, best-selling books that have been loved by a large number of women and have been continually published over several decades. (Everything these women wrote was excellent.)

            * The hero and heroine are strong, intelligent, educated, and wonderful.

            * When most women finish them, they give a deep, satisfied sigh and smile broadly. A lot of the same kind of women who read science fiction and fantasy, read and re-read the books listed below, over and over again.

            * The books are all available from Amazon, in paperback, and the Heyer ones are also for the Kindle.

            MARY STEWART—NOT her fantasies (which are great, but you want to see women in normal situations first—Adventure/Mystery/Romance written in the first person:
            The Ivy Tree
            Madam, Will You Talk?
            Nine Coaches Waiting

            GEORGETTE HEYER—Historical/Regency Romances:
            Venetia
            The Masqueraders
            Lady of Quality

            I know that other commenters might be able to recommend their own choices of books that demonstrate the differences. I promise you, if you actually take a few days and read these six books, you will really have a grasp on what “feminine” means and you may get a feel for the kinds of things you can write about women that will ring true. Don’t concern yourself about the views of feminists and PC-ers—yes, they would shudder at these books I’ve listed, but then they don’t read much science fiction that contains women who are feminine and men who are masculine, except to criticize it with contempt.

            • Alan Silverman says:

              Thank you for the recommendations. I shall have to look into acquiring those books from the library (after seeing if my wife hasn’t already acquired them for herself). They sound very interesting.

          • “in what ways are they so different?”

            Men are masculine and women are feminine. This is a spiritual and aesthetic quality that goes far beyond merely psychological and physical differences: we can see masculinity and femininity in the difference between the beauty of pine trees and the beauty of flowers, in the sun and moon, in storms and ships and stars, and so on. If you are asking me to list masculine and feminine characteristics, I cannot, because the matter is so fundamental.

            “I have always been told that there are relatively minor differences between the sexes: the obvious physical ones, some attitude changes due to hormone levels, and then interests that have been socialized by capital-S Society.”

            You have been told lies. Some lies are so huge and so obvious, that often one cannot tell whether the liar actually believes what he is saying.

            “I have often wondered if what I’ve been told is right; you present a statement to the contrary. Might I inquire for a deeper explanation (or at least, a hearty finger-point to a rational exposition)?”

            Certainly. Ask away. But if you are asking me how sunlight is different from moonlight, or fatherhood from motherhood, you will have to ask a specific question.

            Or simply go into a bookstore and look at the difference between what is pictured on the covers of romance novels and slaughter novels.

            “I don’t understand this statement. Well, I mean, I understand the words, but I don’t understand the reasoning behind them. Why is unisexuality misery? Why is it important for life to have drama; wouldn’t a drama-free life of content simplicity be better (hence the supposed Chinese curse of being born in interesting times)?”

            Would you prefer a life where no one ever fell in love to the way human beings live? We cannot love what is too much like ourselves, because that is only selfishness reflected in a looking glass. We love what is not like us. A hunter does not like his hound for its conversation but for its loyalty; a parent does not love his baby for its strength and ability to pull its own weight.

            In effect, you are asking why boredom and suicide are worse than excitement, danger, joy and life. It is an axiomatic basic of human existence: I cannot explain it to someone who needs it explained. I can use other words to say the same thing, but if you do not think life is preferable to death, why are you going through the motions of staying alive? If you think life is worth living without love, fun, change, growth, drama, all I can say is that a fully alive man has all the thinks the eunuch has, in that he exists from day to day, but has joy atop also.

            “I certainly hope these questions don’t sound as stupid or misguided as I fear they might. Reading this blog (and its comments) has presented to me a great many things I’ve not encountered before, and I find myself quite beset with curiosity.”

            Likewise, I hope my answers do not seem mystical or impatient. I do not really understand the questions. Feel free to ask a follow up question, or many of them: I suspect that until and unless we identify a fundamental axiom, a basic assumption where your world view and mine differ, our words will continue to be riddles to each other.

            • Alan Silverman says:

              That seems reasonable.

              Perhaps an analogy (albeit imperfect) would be this:
              In the Chinese language (I am told), there is no distinction between r and l. To a native speaker, the two sound the same, and are pronounced the same. A Chinese man would find it no more odd to eat lice than to have rice living in his kid’s hair. Yet to we, as English speakers, the two sounds are quite distinct.

              I am the proverbial Chinese man, who his whole life has believed r and l to be the same thing because that it what I have been told. Now, I am told that they are, in fact, different things, and I can kinda maybe hear a difference between rice and lice, but I’m not really sure what to listen for quite yet. So I am asking what the differences between the sounds are, so that I can more readily notice them.

              This is a spiritual and aesthetic quality that goes far beyond merely psychological and physical differences

              I noticed one of your entries a while back (I have admittedly only scanned) in which you argued against materialism. By which I presume that you believe in the existence in the soul (or the mind; I will commit the heresy of ambiguity and just use soul). Are souls themselves, then, masculine or feminine, split down this binary? It sounds to me like you would say yes, but I want to be sure.

              we can see masculinity and femininity in the difference between the beauty of pine trees and the beauty of flowers, in the sun and moon, in storms and ships and stars, and so on.

              It seems with this, you are implying that all of reality is divided into a masculine/feminine binary. Is this actually the case? Does it extend, as well, to the animals–and if so, is an entire animal masculine or feminine, or is it broken by sex in animals that have them?

              Does this have any relation to the sexes that some languages (like Spanish) break the world into; a table (la mesa) is a female, but a book (el libro) is a male?

              We cannot love what is too much like ourselves, because that is only selfishness reflected in a looking glass.

              I do not understand why different sexes is a necessary prerequisite of differences, though. Are you saying that all of the times that a man has putatively loved another man (be it filial (as in the case of David and Jonathan in Blibical lore) or romantic (as in the case of modern homosexual couples)), it is not actually love? Or is it merely that the difference in sex is one of the things that can be a difference?

              I suspect that until and unless we identify a fundamental axiom, a basic assumption where your world view and mine differ, our words will continue to be riddles to each other.

              It is quite a relief to me that you recognize that. Far too often when I discuss matters philosophical or political with people, they neglect to ever discuss their axioms; I have spent too much time in mathematics not to think of it.

              Here is, at least, some basis of axioms to start with:
              – Reality exists, and there is a material world, and there are things beyond the ken of the material world (“More things in heaven and earth” and all that).
              – The material world (or at least, almost all of it) is measurable and comprehensible in some manner; we call the general sum of this method and results to be “science”
              – Mathematics exists, as does its cousin, logic
              – Humans exist, and have a peculiar quality to them that makes them the paragon of animals, and seems to elevate them into the sphere of non-determinism (I believe you would call this a soul, a nomenclature I will use as the only “better” one I can think of offhand is “mind”)

              These are, probably, quite simple axioms that we can agree upon. I figured we may as well start relatively simple.

              • “Are souls themselves, then, masculine or feminine, split down this binary? It sounds to me like you would say yes, but I want to be sure.”

                I am not sure of the condition of disembodied souls. The Good Book, for those of us who accept it as authoritative, says that the blessed souls in heaven neither marry nor are given in marriage; on the other hand, God is clearly a ‘He’ and the Virgin is a ‘She’ so make of that what you will.

                Of souls (or, if you prefer, minds) in bodies, I can only report that even when I see the women I know do masculine things, cook out doors, fix car engines, accept duels, they do them in a feminine way.

                “It seems with this, you are implying that all of reality is divided into a masculine/feminine binary. Is this actually the case?”

                No, I am not actually implying that. You are drawing an impermissible conclusion from the statement. If I say certain sexless objects nevertheless have gender, this does not imply all do.

                “Does it extend, as well, to the animals–and if so, is an entire animal masculine or feminine, or is it broken by sex in animals that have them?”

                Generally dogs are masculine and cats feminine, but this could be because the concepts of slobbery loyalty are masculine and regal delicacy is feminine. All sexual animals are divided into male and female; amoeba are not.

                “Does this have any relation to the sexes that some languages (like Spanish) break the world into; a table (la mesa) is a female, but a book (el libro) is a male?”

                I don’t know. Perhaps the nomothetes who first devised fit words to call things sensed the natural gender of their objects, and suited the gender of language to match. (I am here using the word gender to mean the nonphysical characteristics of grammar and inanimate objects.)

                “Are you saying that all of the times that a man has putatively loved another man (be it filial (as in the case of David and Jonathan in Blibical lore) or romantic (as in the case of modern homosexual couples)), it is not actually love?”

                Nope, I didn’t say that. I assume the philos or brotherly love between David and Jonathan was enriched by their differences. Obviously many friends and lovers share basic virtues, tastes, interests.

                “Or is it merely that the difference in sex is one of the things that can be a difference?”

                The question is odd. You seem to be conflating friendship (philos) and romantic love (eros) and selfless love (agape). The nature and laws of these different loves differ. Most noticeably, friendship is inclusive and romance is exclusive. Any man is willing to introduce his friend to his friends, and have them all be friends together; no man should be willing to introduce his wife to his friends for an orgy.

                The differences in the sexes makes friendship between the sexes, if not rare, than at least having a different cast of features. I know of few or no male-female friendships that do not have at least some sexual overtones. When sexual overtones are absent, male and female friends tend to act like brother and sister, not like two persons who are friends who happen to wear different hairdos.

                “It is quite a relief to me that you recognize that. Far too often when I discuss matters philosophical or political with people, they neglect to ever discuss their axioms…”

                I thank you for the implied compliment. I am not a novelist who took up philosophy, I am a philosopher who took up novel-writing.

                “Here is, at least, some basis of axioms to start with – Reality exists, and there is a material world, and there are things beyond the ken of the material world (“More things in heaven and earth” and all that).”

                Granted.

                – The material world (or at least, almost all of it) is measurable and comprehensible in some manner; we call the general sum of this method and results to be “science”

                Granted.

                – Mathematics exists, as does its cousin, logic

                Granted.

                – Humans exist, and have a peculiar quality to them that makes them the paragon of animals, and seems to elevate them into the sphere of non-determinism (I believe you would call this a soul, a nomenclature I will use as the only “better” one I can think of offhand is “mind”)

                Granted. It makes no difference to me whether it is called mind or soul, since only a technical difference exists between the words. Outside of a discussion where that technical difference matters, as far as I am concerned, use any terminology you prefer, provided it is not ambiguous.

                These are, probably, quite simple axioms that we can agree upon. I figured we may as well start relatively simple.

                Excellent. Granted all this, do you agree that man is divided into male and female sexes, and, unlike jellyfish and slipper shells, we do not change naturally the one into the other?

                • Alan Silverman says:

                  Things prior to this: okay. Seems sensible.

                  Perhaps the nomothetes who first devised fit words to call things sensed the natural gender of their objects, and suited the gender of language to match. (I am here using the word gender to mean the nonphysical characteristics of grammar and inanimate objects.)

                  My doubt here would be twofold: first, that languages don’t agree on the number of genders (German has three: masculine, feminine, and neuter), and that between languages, the genders are not consistent (the Sun is masculine in Spanish, but feminine in German).

                  Though, to be fair, the general explanation of “corrupted over time from Proto-Indo-European” would suffice. So I’d call it a moot point.

                  You seem to be conflating friendship (philos) and romantic love (eros) and selfless love (agape). The nature and laws of these different loves differ.

                  So I am, though I was trying hard not to; though I was slightly confused which love you were referring to in your statement that love requires differences.

                  Though, the way I have always been told to translate eros is physical love–that is, lust (hence, “erotic”). Though I would contend the romantic love I have for my wife is a combination of all three: that I am committed to her, that I am attracted to her, and that I would die for her.

                  I know of few or no male-female friendships that do not have at least some sexual overtones.

                  This surprises me. My wife and I are part of a group of couples that meet regularly for friendship/community reasons; I am friends with all of the other wives there, and I certainly don’t sense any sexual overtones. Mind, I suspect you’re talking about a deeper friendship than I have with any of them–I am, admittedly, not better friends with any of them than I am of the man who was the Best Man at my wedding (though living with someone for several years can lead to deep friendships).

                  And I have now and again had deeper friendships with women, though as you point out, they do end up resembling my relationship with my sister (now that I think about it).

                  I get the impression that you are not particularly fond of homosexuality, though I am curious how you would classify it in the capacity for full romantic love with (hopefully resolved) sexual tension, compared to a heterosexual romance. (I feel like I am phrasing this query particularly poorly, if it is nonsensical)

                  do you agree that man is divided into male and female sexes, and, unlike jellyfish and slipper shells, we do not change naturally the one into the other?

                  I certainly agree that humans are generally split into male and female sexes, and genitalia/organs, once set in the womb, don’t change without external intervention. My hesitance as stating the firm binary comes from the existence of hermaphrodites. I am speaking here only of people who are physical hermaphrodites: who are born with both male and female genitalia (or half of each), or of having for instance male genitalia but female internal organs–not of anything in the psychological realm (though we may eventually get to them). Which biological sex should a hermaphrodite get sorted into?

                  • Since the basics of the male-female dynamic are under discussion, I will withdraw my speculation that the name-givers of the hypothetical Ur-language sensed something about the gender of the things in their environment.

                    “Though I would contend the romantic love I have for my wife is a combination of all three: that I am committed to her, that I am attracted to her, and that I would die for her.”

                    Well said! If you wish to use the word “romantic love” to refer to that combination of friendship, selflessness and eroticism a man ought to have for his wife, that is fine with me. I myself use “eros” to mean both the illicit lusts and licit, as well as those fine shades of feeling by which infatuation grows into a truer love. In the best possible situation, the crude and primitive lust of a boy for a girl evolves naturally into that combined and threefold love, physical, mental, and spiritual, of which you speak.

                    “This surprises me. My wife and I are part of a group of couples that meet regularly for friendship/community reasons; I am friends with all of the other wives there, and I certainly don’t sense any sexual overtones.”

                    If may be brutally honest, it may mean only that you are more civilized and noble than I, better able to restrain your lusts. I would not want to be alone with one of my wife’s pretty female friends for any extended period: it would make me uncomfortable. I also do not care to treat them without the gallantry which is endemic to gentlemen.

                    “I get the impression that you are not particularly fond of homosexuality, though I am curious how you would classify it in the capacity for full romantic love with (hopefully resolved) sexual tension, compared to a heterosexual romance.”

                    I do not have any particular emotional reaction to the practice one way or the other. From the vast, cool and unsympathetic intellect level on which I operate, I recognize that it is perversion, similar to any number of sexual attractions to people and things with which the sex act cannot be consummated. Homosexuality is illogical, a contradiction in terms: homo refers to two persons of the same sex, and sexuality refers to the sexual dyad. It is like talking about a complimentary pair of angles which both happen to be obtuse.

                    I was raised as a libertine libertarian, firmly convinced that whatever two consenting adults did in the privacy of their bedroom was their own affair. However, I had always assumed this meant extending to sexual perverts the courtesy and dignity which their innate humanity demanded. Since their perversion harmed no one, it should be tolerated, and legalized.

                    I do, however, have a very strong emotion about political correctness, which scorns any offer to tolerate perversion on the grounds that to judge a sexual act pervert is not merely rude, but abominable. That emotion, I am ashamed to admit, is burning & murderous hate. It is an emotion unusual for me. I am an honest man; absolute honesty is something of a fetish with me, and I feel about persons who think they have the right to command me to speak lies or think them about what you might feel for a person who thinks he has the right to command you to eat the roasted flesh of infant children. I am hoping converting to Christianity will ameliorate my feelings into something more civilized.

                    You see, the PC-niks did not want me to tolerate sexual perversion, they wanted to make believe that merely by acknowledging the truth that sex is sex and non-sex is non-sex, merely by using the word “perversion” to refer to an objectively mis-oriented appetite (which is technically what the word means), that I was a monster filled with hate: a “homophobe” (a word which actually means a psychopathological fear of being alone.) Being labeled a “homophobe” is the same as being accused of witchcraft in puritan Salem, and any attack directed against me by the PC-niks, no matter how cruel or unjust, was justified.

                    Frankly, I have no hate of homosexuality at all, or even much interest in it. The most I can be said to have is a mild clinical interest in a sexual practice which is, frankly, something more healthy than some of my own. My soul is not very chaste. Homosexuality is a bizarrely insignificant political or philosophical issue, once requiring no clarity of thought or technical adroitness of philosophy to comprehend. My main complaint against it, were I forced to utter a complaint, is that it is unromantic.

                    After I had children, I realized that the moral code all men perceive in their hearts (even if some rebel against it) cannot occupy the neutral ground staked out by the libertarians. Neutrality has proven to be the same as approval, and approval to be the same as hatred of all that is wholesome and normal. Whether the law forbids sodomy or not, it was incumbent upon me as a father to teach my children the difference between wholesome and unwholesome, normal and abnormal, sex and sexual perversion, logic and illogic, truth and lies.

                    After their divorce, my father married a divorcee whose husband had abandoned her and their two young children to go live with his gay lover. He stayed on good terms with his ex wife, and I met him on several occasions, and thought him a fine fellow. He committed suicide recently. It is my belief that this act of self destruction was caused by the disillusionment he felt when he realized that his homosexual lifestyle could not give him the things political correctness had promised, namely, a life as full of joy and fulfillment as married life. The homosex lobby, the PC philosophy and those who believe it, lied to him and deceived him and he died of it. My stepsister and brother whom I love were robbed of their father twice by the homosexual lifestyle and the political correctness that teaches approval for that lifestyle. The man was robbed of his life by these lies. This may explain my murderous hatred.

                    But please understand, I do not consider this fine man’s homosexuality to be what drove him away from his duties as a father and into the arms of suicide. It was lies that did this.

                    He was told that sex was a matter of human choice, and sexual orientation was a matter of invincible genetic determinism beyond human choice. He was told that the source of all his guilt and discomfort was the arbitrary condemnation of a cruel and foolish society, and that once the social mores were changed, the condemnation would vanish, and so would the guilt and discomfort, and somehow, by magic, his pursuit of sexual satisfaction and true love through sexually perverse channels would be rewarding, stable, and satisfying. Everything he was told was a lie, and he was not strong enough to disbelieve these soothing voices and his own disordered sexual appetites.

                    Homosexuality is merely an appetite of the soul, and it does not, by itself, have the power to ruin and destroy life. Lies do have that power.

                    Pardon me for going on at length, but I have been harassed over this one boring and insignificant issue so savagely and for so long, I would prefer to curtail any lengthy discussion of it by setting out my thoughts to you clearly, one time, and at once.

                    To answer the question, I would say the ability of homosexuals to find true love by combining friendship and mutual masturbation, erotic love and selfless love with an organism with whom sexual congress is neither physically possible, nor is the mental complimentary nature of male-female partnership present, is greater than that of other sexual perverts, perhaps far greater, since the partner in this case is a rational adult (merely of the wrong sex) but not as great as persons with correctly ordered sexual appetites. The innate illogic of attempting a sexual relation where only the surface features of sex are possible, that is, the masturbation of the sexual organs without coitus, will tend to stand in the way. Moreover, none of the homosexuals I know (except for one) stay in stable relationships. This raises the suspicion that the natural impulse to vow eternal love which occurs between man and maid is not present there.

                    In other words, even if it were possible for homosexuals to fall truly and madly in love with each other, and to vow and to maintain lifelong fidelity combining physical love with friendship and divine love, the possibility should not be explored. Even if it made them happy and had no evil side effects on the world around them, they should eschew falling in love with persons of a non-complimentary sex: simply because the reality of sex is that sex yearns to form a dyad, a pair; and simply because virtue demands honest men to order their passions and appetites according to reality. Happiness is not the pursuit of false pleasures.

                    “Which biological sex should a hermaphrodite get sorted into?”

                    That depend on for what purpose we are sorting them. Is it an abstract question of biology? One might look at the chromosomes. Is it a legal question concerning which bathroom they could use? Legal precedent in such a case hardly matters, since the condition is so rare. Philosophically, for the purpose of this discussion, one could put them into their own category as hermaphrodites. On a practical level, I have never met one, and so have no real knowledge of them.

                    • Alan Silverman says:

                      That indeed makes your perspective on homosexuality clear.

                      That depend on for what purpose we are sorting them. Is it an abstract question of biology? One might look at the chromosomes. Is it a legal question concerning which bathroom they could use? Legal precedent in such a case hardly matters, since the condition is so rare. Philosophically, for the purpose of this discussion, one could put them into their own category as hermaphrodites. On a practical level, I have never met one, and so have no real knowledge of them.

                      The problem with chromosomes is that you run into several corner cases: situations where people have only an X chromosome, or are XXX, or are XXY, or various other combinations; it is, if this is to be believed, also possible for an XY-haver to be externally female. You then also have chimerae, which can be both simultaneously XY and XX. I would think that–though the medical sciences will categorize these with names–we would not want to suddenly incur all of these categories.

                      Legal doesn’t interest me, in this case.

                      Practically, I knew a woman in college who claimed to be a hermaphrodite. I was around when she was asked about it once or twice, though I never visually verified anything she said. I regret that I cannot remember what cause she said it was, or more details; this was nearly a decade ago. (I also use “she” because that’s what she preferred to be called).

                      But I do think that philosophically is the path we are going down. Philosophically, then, I would be willing to split humanity up into three categories of sex: male, female, and hermaphrodite.

                    • Patrick says:

                      “Philosophically, then, I would be willing to split humanity up into three categories of sex: male, female, and hermaphrodite”

                      You would do hermaphrodites a disservice by misrepresenting their disease as telos.

                      Ask a hermaphrodite if they are a man or a woman, and they will generally not say “I don’t know”. They aren’t, as you may imagine, a sort of inter-sexed, hyper-sexed but sterile hybrid of both man and woman, knowing by direct intuition the nature of both.

                      This is because they are male or female ‘despite’ an abnormality, not ‘because’ you aren’t open-minded enough to accept them as otherwise.

                • Tom Simon says:

                  You say you are not sure of the condition of disembodied souls. From the Catholic point of view, which I understand us to share, I can at least point in the direction of an answer:

                  Aquinas, following Aristotle, describes the soul as the ‘substantial form’ of the body; so that a disembodied soul is rather like a rubber ball with the rubber removed. It is a thing abstracted from its natural mode of existence, and to that extent unnatural. (Hence, as I understand it, the particular odiousness of those heresies that deny the resurrection of the body.) Since ‘male and female created He them’, and no human being is genuinely sexless, sex is a property of the soul as much as of the body. And therefore a disembodied soul is never the soul of just a human being, but of a particular human being, who is of a particular sex: of a man, or of a woman; and not just of any man or any woman, but of Peter or John or Mary or Martha.

                  Beyond this point, I must leave you to the Doctors of the Church; humbly accepting and awaiting correction for any errors I have made.

                  • Such was my assumption, by I have no way to prove it to a skeptic, and I was unwilling to make a definitive statement on the matter, lest the conversation be drawn into the swamps of speculations about female souls in male bodies, et cetera. For now, the conversation is about masculine and feminine things we see in this fallen world. I also did not want to introduce a note of Cartesian duality by talking about male souls and female souls, a note Thomistic doctrine nicely preempts and avoids.

            • DGDDavidson says:

              It looks to me as if Mr. Silverman may be falling into a materialist error. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a materialist, but these days we all absorb materialism to some extent. To say that the only differences between man and woman are some matters of chromosomes, organs, and hormone levels, is to reduce men and women to a set of physical properties.

              Though I would add, too, that those physical properties, even taken by themselves, slight as they may seem at a quick glance, are enormous, and make the world go ’round. The ability to have children and suckle them is a vital thing that women have and men do not, though, again, we have absorbed from our culture the idea that it is a slight thing of no importance, and a nuisance or liability.

              • Alan Silverman says:

                My intention is certainly not to be making such an error, though it may be that I am. It is simply difficult, at times, to describe/observe something beyond what is physically observable. It may just be that I lack the words, though.

              • That just means that married men have little or no imput into the culture, which has lost its mind. Freud speaks of ‘penis envy’ among females, but, from the women I know in life, none of them actually wishes for this nifty combination of sewer pipe and semen squirter dangling between their legs.

                On the other hand, whenever I was minding the baby, and mommy was away or asleep, and junior started crying, and the only thing I had to work with was a bag of frozen milk and a baby bottle, boy, howdy, did I ever have breast envy! I had to heat the milk, prep the bottle, etc. while each sobbed of my beloved babe tore my heart like a knife.

                Imagine the convenience of carrying a baby bottle at each nipple ready at a moment’s notice to feed the young! It is like a superpower. I am almost sorry that our post-Jane-Russel culture has fetishized the baby-nursing glands at secondary sexual characteristics to the degree it has: it demeans them.

        • WyldCard4 says:

          Note a couple of things.

          1. I think the first issue is that the modern act of making a household is very different from that of the past. Much of the economics of it has shifted into the work place or been replaced by machines. Remove a lot of the work of a household into the economy (food preparation) or involve massive time saving limitations and of course they’re going to want to fill in their time rather then sit idly by. My own mother is proof of that.

          2. Raising children and doing things outside of the home is less and less exclusive these days. My mother is absolutely both a career woman and a Type A personality, who chose to homeschool me, founded her own Boy Scout Troop, and teach classes for the entire local community. Depending on personality and inclination people can take the job of motherhood extremely differently. (My mother is one of the best people at just about anything she has ever set her mind to I have ever known).

          3. I do sincerely believe that there is a minority of women who have a male competitive urge and generally masculine personality traits. Some might do this because they are damaged, betrayed, or sadly realistic when it comes to men, but there is a minority like that. There is also a sensitive minority of men who seem to be closer to female traits. All of this is a continuum. I think your own Church recognizes this in a way with monks and nuns providing other life styles then marriage and family.

          4. You cannot make the simultaneous claim that men are evil and put all their minds to evil all the time (and you have) and that women should trust men to provide for them economically without any precautions what so ever. Unless and until we directly give money to everyone just for existing, abuses are going to happen If a wicked man tricks a woman into marriage and abuses her, and threatens her with not being able to support her children if she leaves him, this is something anyone would agree is bad. That kind of concern is I think a cause of a desire for economic independence. There might be a lot more very bad reasons for wanting it that don’t work for a lot of women, but I think it is a legitimate fear as long as we are a fallen species.

          • “You cannot make the simultaneous claim that men are evil and put all their minds to evil all the time (and you have) and that women should trust men to provide for them economically without any precautions what so ever”

            But of course I say no such thing. Like all good husbands, I turn 100% of my paycheck over to my wife immediately upon payday. I control the household, she controls the finances. It is an equitable arrangement.

            • WyldCard4 says:

              The issue here is “good” husband, I think. To the best of my knowledge of your household, there is nothing wrong at all between you and your wife (based on your respective blogs).

              My argument is that women not being able to support themselves can be dangerous. That is really the extent of the concern in that direction. This concern is for abusive outliers, not healthy relationships.

              • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

                Not really what is being talked about, even though some wounded, bent souls would have you think so. None save a very few can support themselves (Rangers, Seals, not even all of them). We are part of a community, and do not stand alone. One of the points of Marriage (Before the Feminists destroyed it) was that, if the husband or wife died or failed in some fashion, there would be two other families to aid the damaged one. The question is not “What do we do to help women in need”, we already had a system in place. The question is does the current system, the one that demands a woman be “Financially independent” as a wife, work better? Does it increase the number of “Marriages”? Does it lower the number of Divorces? Does it increase the number of Children? It seems to me the answers to all these questions is No.

              • “My argument is that women not being able to support themselves can be dangerous.”

                Getting married is dangerous. The best defense would seem to be having large families, so that each unhappy bride has brothers and cousins to which she can turn in time of need. Getting married while keeping each other at arm’s length would seem to be more dangerous, even among the outliers, or, rather, may be one of the factors contributing to unhappiness among the outliers, along with no-fault divorce.

        • deiseach says:

          Gentlemen, I have not made myself sufficiently clear. I did not mean “treat women as if they were men wearing lipstick” or “pretend that there are no differences of emotion and psyche between men and women”.

          I meant “If you have character Annie walking into a deserted space station alleged to have been occupied by murderous alien killbots which wiped out the crew, all alone with only a teddy bear tucked under her arm, would you do the same if you were writing character Arnie?” I do not say that Annie would not burst into tears, or be scared, or comport herself like a man, but I do say that anyone with a modicum of sense is not going to do anything like that (unless Annie is suffering alien influence, or is indeed mentally unwell, or any such exterior cause).

          I submit the instance which made me want to throttle whichever costume designer it was who designed the uniform of Seven of Nine, which was a scene where Seven and B’Elanna are climbing down a ladder in a Jeffries tube. B’Elanna, being a sensible woman and an engineer, which is a trade of practicality and concrete experience, is wearing uniform boots with a very slight heel. Seven is lumbered with damn stilettos (or at least, that’s what they looked like to me through my haze of fury). Now, Seven is a Borg. She is unfamiliar with human practices of allurement and sensual appeal. She is not inclined to artifice. There is no practical reason for her to be wearing high-heels in this or any other instance, but let us confine ourselves to climbing down a ladder in a confined, dimly-lit space. Seven as she was – a logical, detached, dispassionate ex-Borg who had no notion of human courtship or making herself look appealing to men, would not have worn heels in that place at that time. The only reason the character (and the actress) was lumbered with them was because the character was specifically designed to appeal to the fanboys and attract them to view the hobbling mess they had made of the series “Voyager” in order to bump up the viewing figures.

          Gentlemen, if you would not have a sensible male character comporting himself in a manner likely to get his neck broken by wearing unsuitable clothing, please consider the same for your heroine. I don’t say make all your female characters wear sensible shoes, but I do say, if you’re going to have them climbing down ladders in the dark, at least let them kick off their high heels to do so (even if they stuff them into their coat pocket in order to put them back on once they’ve reached the bottom).

          • deiseach says:

            Or, you know, I could just point you to this and nod enthusiastically.

            Please note, as the poster says, the comparison between St. Joan of Arc and St. George :-)

          • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

            Well, this is one of those “Great Divide” moments. You object because men are not getting the tipping point right when it comes to women torturing themselves with their shoes. “Sensible male character comporting himself in a manner likely to get his neck broken by wearing unsuitable clothing” is not something we see a lot of in the real world (the only example I can think of is those silly young men who wear their pants too loose.) but it is something women do all the time in the eyes of men. So it goes.

          • Alan Silverman says:

            If it’s any consolation, I have none of my female characters ever wearing heels to the best of my knowledge. Though, this is more notified by the fact that my mother worked in orthopedics and physical therapy, and would explain to me (sometimes in gruesome detail) what wearing those torture devices does to your feet.

            I am glad I married a woman who prefers to wear sneakers.

            (That and I have never understood how heels make a woman any more attractive–I can never tell the difference unless I see her feet, at which point I cringe at how she is destroying them)

            • The high heel elevates and emphasizes the buttocks by tilting the hips out slightly, and gives definition and curve to the calf by forcing the wearer to tighten the muscles in her upper thigh.

              All good Christian men know that the true beauty and ornament of a woman is her virtue.

              • Alan Silverman says:

                I have indeed been told that is what heels do, but I personally can’t see it. This could also just be a failing of my observation. I also tend not to spend too much time looking at that area of women.

          • I accept the correction humbly. Indeed, being an ardent romantic, which means, the opposite of a feminist, I would say that if you have your female character FAIL to do something more practical than the male character, who are often confounded by testosterone and abstract ideals, you have not limned the characterization with sufficient care.

        • Suburbanbanshee says:

          So the novel She, and its many followups, are not about men swooning over La Belle Dame Sans Merci? I’m pretty sure Allan Quatermain was the only guy She met who didn’t swoon. :)

      • Alan Silverman says:

        On the contrary, I found Calvin to be an utterly unmemorable character. Had you not mentioned her name, I would not have been able to recall it. I merely recall there being humans that had conversations with Robots in which Asimov demonstrated that the Three Laws had loopholes deriving from the ambiguity of human speech.

        Mind, I thought some of the loopholes were clever, but I finished “I, Robot” wondering to myself why I had really bothered. I felt no emotion from the book at all.

  6. Stephen J. says:

    I have to admit that I actually still remember Salvor Hardin, of Asimov’s first “Foundation” stories, quite vividly — perhaps because I identified very strongly with a man who thought his way out of problems not because he gloated over his ability to do so but because he took very seriously his responsibility to do so. And I always sympathized intensely with poor Magnifico — all the short-term power in the world isn’t compensation for knowing yourself a long-term irrelevance.

    It may be that DUNE does not count as SF, given its extreme space operaticness, but I’d cite the cast of DUNE as great characters one and all. Duke Leto Atreides remains the kind of father I hope I can be.

  7. Maypo says:

    Mr Wright, Do you have a definitive list of books that feature passionate, heroic men ala John Carter? That would be an entertaining diversion. Perhaps the list could be prescribed to the folks who didn’t understand what they were doing when creating the “John Carter” movie.

    • Hm. Not sure I can help here. I suppose I could list PRINCESS OF MARS, GODS OF MARS, WARLORD OF MARS, and so on. Otherwise, I am afraid that most of my reading in in science fiction, which tends to favor, as I mentioned, somewhat Sherlockian and detached intellectuals as heroes, or grim, sardonic and quiet men.

    • Pierce O. says:

      I would recommend THE DRESDEN FILES books, and the Japanese comic series ONE PIECE. Harry Dresden, despite his faults, alway strives to save the day, so much so that one of his enemies, as an insult, buys him a tombstone that reads “Here lies Harry Dresden. He died doing the right thing”. Captain Monkey D. Luffy from One Pieces is not quite a man yet, but is completely undaunted in pursuit of his dreams and protecting his friends. FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST is another good comic series, but the titular alchemist is more of a mix between the passionate hero and the detached, intellectual hero. Also, come to think of it, THE WORM OUROBOROS is populated entirely by noble pagan warriors, and is one of the most richly written books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

  8. David_Marcoe says:

    I’ve been considering characterization with a plot I’ve been cooking that’s a hommage to Burroughs’s anti-communist The Moon Maid. I posit an alternate history where FDR kicks the bucket, allowing for Huey Long to take presidency, while and Hitler dies before offing Ernst Röhm and decapitating the SA (the socialist wing of the Nazi party), creating conditions that precipitate a decades-early fall of the dominoes and the rise of a Communist world-state (German efficiency, Soviet policies, Chinese numbers).

    Between the 1930s and 1960s, America goes through five phases: populist socialism, civil war, a Soviet-style takeover, a neo-Maoist cultural revolution, and then the rise of a Derrida/Foucalt-style “intellectual” ruling class. Set about a hundred and fifty or two hundred years after the election of Huey Long, this cognitive elite have eliminated literacy, institutions schools, libraries, organized religion, and marriage, saying that they have liberated the masses from the tools of control imposed on them by the old ruling class.

    The main character is the son of a single mother who has revolving door of boyfriends that she cohabitates with for either protection or financial reasons. While children may be surrendered to the state as “undue burdens” (to then be sent off to labor camps or terminated), his mothers keeps out or love and despite the hardship.

    At the age of twelve, children are sent off to do military service, called “peace service,” in the Volunteer Corps for Peace (called just the Volunteer Corps or “VC”), or “work service,” which is apprenticeship to a trade. In this process, examiners are sent out to look for intelligent children (and the main character is as smart as they come) to be plucked from these normal choices and sent to special secret state schools for training and admission to the ruling class, since the intellectuals don’t reproduce enough to keep their numbers up. He then runs away.

    He stumbles into the wilderness and eventually comes across the ruins of an ancient fire-bombed pre-war house with an intact basement. It’s past owner was am member of the “Sons of Liberty” movement that had resisted the Long administration and a former Army officer (and West Point graduate) who had resigned his commission over the use of the National Guard and regular Army during a period of unrest. His grandfather had been a cavalry officer in the Civil War and Indian wars, his father a cavalry officer and West Point grad, and he an officer in one the last cavalry units in the Army (we still had mounted cavalry till WWII). After leaving the Army, he fell in love with and married the daughter of a Japanese immigrant and businessman. All these details are important because of what he left behind in that basement: books. The main character, starting with learning the alphabet from a children’s picture book, learns how to read. You can imagine what knowledge he comes across.

    Anyway, the issue I’m having at this point is characterization. I’m trying to figure out his motivations and fears. Anyone have any suggestions?

  9. David_Marcoe says:

    Er, um, I posted a comment and it’s not showing up. Not even an “in moderation” message.

  10. Nostreculsus says:

    It is just more difficult for science-fiction writers to create memorable characters because their stories take place in a social context which is either a disrupted present or a very different future. To create a character, the author must specify two things: a certain social role, and then the individual’s reactions and attitudes towards this role. Now, in conventional literature, the social background is easy to sketch in. The character is a New York advertising executive. Immediately, we have assumptions about how he looks, how he will behave, what his goals and aspirations are.

    Now add the individual features. Unless we are deliberately creating a stereotype, some of these should go against the expectations set up by his social role. So, he has a dark past that he conceals from his colleagues. He has a personal code of ethics. Korean War experiences. A troubled marriage. And you have created a character, “Don Draper”.

    Now try doing this in an alien social setting. Your character is a technovorn of the Pleides Alliance. Add individual features: he despises the Grand Mentor because his egg was contaminated by parmalat DNA in the nursery. He hides this from the other technovorns by erasing his Vloxx each dekkad. He dreams of a simpler life in the Unitat.

    You problem is to cram in lots of exposition, so that any of this makes sense. It can be done. Tolkien (fantasy and not SF, but similar issues) created enough context so that his character’s back-stories made sense. But it is clearly more difficult.

    Well, what about SF that takes place in our world, but with some extraordinary speculative event? Let’s look at “The War of the Worlds”. Wells could have given his narrator more background. Let’s try out some of Wells’ own characters. The narrator might be Mr Polly, a draper’s shopkeeper, who daydreams of heroic deeds. He would watch the failed resistance and reflect on the uselessness of valour and the importance of the humble microbe. Or Uncle Ponderevo, the social climber, might promote futile weapons to the War Ministry. Or Ann Veronica, biology student and suffragette, might bitterly watch the male establishment crumble before the Martian onslaught, and then see the Martians fall in turn before a biological enemy.

    Wells could have written any of these versions, and each one adds a certain twist, but he went with an “everyman” narrator to paint a broader picture of the invasion. The Spielberg movie “War of the Worlds” tries to give the viewpoint character a personality with truly appalling results. Tom Cruise is a divorced dockworker who has to keep his annoying family together and get to his ex-wife in Boston. Why? Did the UN decree Boston to be a “safe area” and the Martians agree to this? The personal story just takes away from the scale of the panoramic disaster being shown.

    • A good analysis, to which I will add one small caveat.

      Tolkien, and modern fantasy following him, can perform much the same art using much the same tools by describing characters in their settings, which, unlike science fictional settings, are not unknown to the reader. The reader of fantasy is expected to bring to the book his own knowledge of myth, legend, fairytale and medieval or ancient history, and hence to recognize, without it being explained, what is a wizard, a knight, a gladiator, a priestess, a princess, an alchemist, a leper, a dragon, elf or dwarf, or a human sacrifice even if the reader has never met one of these rarities in his life.

      Occidental or medieval fantasies rest on that shock of recognition, as if these are props from our common mental attic in the west, so that when Gandalf the Gray or Sparrowhawk of Gont or Gorice of Witchland appears on stage, he is as familiar to us as Prospero or Merlin. Oriental fantasies set in mythic versions of China or Arabia rest on a shock of strangeness, as if we come across props from the mental attic of another culture. We are not necessarily supposed to recognize as our own what a Shinto shrine-maiden is, or an avatar, or a dervish, a mandarin, a sultan, or Rokurokubi.

      Science fictional settings deliberately do the opposite, and cheat reader’s automatic expectations. A.E. van Vogt once said he attempted to put such an intellectual jump or gap in the reader’s mind once per sentence. Robert Heinlein could do it by casual reference to things similar to the modern, but not like the modern, such as “the door dilated.”

      Gene Wolfe can do it with exquisite mastery, such as by having all persons in his heliocentric commonwealth of Urth refer to dawn and dust as the horizon covering or revealing the sun, or having a character ponder the long war between men and beasts, wondering how men would be fed and clothed and shod on a world where humans use only animals that did not talk. The reader must made a leap of imagination to recall that previous references to the language of mice or the rude letters they scrawl in dung on the outside of books in which they house were not meant other than literally, and children asking if sheep beg for their lives before slaughter may have been asking a very sensible question.

      As you say, a quirky character, a non-everyman, might throw off the reader’s ability to make the mental adjustments to the oddities of the strange new world.

  11. Boggy Man says:

    I don’t think this is a particular issue with sci-fi. It’s a trait that runs through most good genre stories. You need an everyman protagonist to center the audience. There are plenty of memorable characters in fantasy/horror/sci-fi that the protagonist meets. Who cares if Luke is a boring hayseed if Obiwan, Han and Vader are so dang memorable.

    Besides, I think most critics have an inability to look at a whole character and take their arc of development into account. Frodo at Bilbo’s party is not the same as he is at the rim of Mt. Doom, but too many critics will consider the initial introduction to be the whole character.

    • Alan Silverman says:

      Frodo at Bilbo’s party is not the same as he is at the rim of Mt. Doom, but too many critics will consider the initial introduction to be the whole character.

      Which is kind of weird when you think about it, because one of the key elements to a story (I am told) is that the main character changes through it. The Hero’s Journey ends with the Hero back at home, no longer who they were when they Refused the Call.

  12. Tom Simon says:

    I agree with you, Sir, in general, but as always, I reserve the right to demur in the particular. I am Ming the Merciless, Picker of Nits: hear me roar!

    I find it odd that you fixed upon Bayta Darell as a memorable character in Asimov, and left out the far more memorable and human character that she opposed and defeated: the Mule! We know a good deal about poor Magnifico’s taste in music (from his Visi-Sonor concert), politics (from his Union of Worlds), and yes, even women (from his unrequited and ultimately disastrous crush on Bayta). The stock objection, of course, is that the Mule is not a human being, but a mutant. I submit two answers to the objection:

    1. The Mule is a mutant, but he is a human mutant; he remains a member of the species H. sapiens, and his whole psychology is human, coloured as much by his atrocious upbringing (which he has in common with many real persons) as by his mental powers (in which he is merely equal, not superior, to the men of the Second Foundation, and rather inferior to many a human wizard in other tales).

    2. Since the rest of Asimov’s characters are so sketchily drawn, there is precious little evidence in the text, aside from the author’s bald assertion, that they are human. We see a great deal more of the Mule’s inner life, and even of his outward habits and foibles, than we do with almost any of Asimov’s other characters. In the end he is a tragic figure, for after spending his whole life in opposition to a Galaxy of grey-faced automatons (bragging, as he does at one point, that the odds are equal), he is overcome by the particular grey-faced automatons of the Second Foundation. The telepathic supermen without personalities defeat the telepathic superman who dares to be a person.

    The Mule’s story is a tragedy, and a very unjust one: it is the story of a living, feeling, red-blooded man, playing chess with the ghost of a mad scientist with Asperger’s. And though he loses the match, it is not because he is an inferior player, but because all the chessmen belong to his opponent at the beginning of the game, and the Mule has only such men as he can capture with his lone King.

    • Another Asimov character occurs to me, who is three-dimensional at least by this definition:

      One-dimensional characters have no motivation; two-dimensional characters have a simple motivation; three-dimensional characters, as in life, have conflicts of motivation.

      I am thinking of Geoffrey Stock from “In a Good Cause”, who works all his life to unite the fractured human race against the alien Diaboli, and succeeds. But his methods were such that it is not he, but his foolishly idealistic friend Richard Altmayer, who will be remembered; for Altmayer preached the essential unity of men, while Stock merely took the unappealing, unidealistic steps of practical politics, war, and deceitful diplomacy necessary to achieve it. The story ends on the wistful line, “And when they build their statues, they will build none for me.”

      This speaks to me of a man who has overcome his ardent desire to be remembered well; who has matched it against the need for unity if humanity is to survive, and sacrificed his own desire accordingly. If this isn’t conflicting motivations I don’t know what is. That said, it’s true that this conflict is the payload, rather than the substance, of the story; it is revealed at the end as part of the twist – we never actually see Stock making his bitter decision. After all it’s a short story, with only so many words in it. I feel nevertheless that even as a sting in the tail, the motivation is very successful; throughout, Stock has been delivering lines of practicality, pragmatism, and going along to get along. Then at the end he reveals his idealism, and that all his practicality has been in the service of the same ideal his friend has preached so unsuccessfully; he speaks the only emotional line he gets in the whole story, and in it we see a whole life of conflict.

      But in a good cause, there are no failures.

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