[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Characterization and Aliens

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

I get tired of hearing some science-fiction fans saying that characterization isn't important in SF. In point of fact, I think it's probably more important in SF than in mainstream fiction. After all, if the author can't characterize humans well, he or she probably can't characterize aliens well either. Larry Niven did some interesting, ground-breaking work in creating fictional extraterrestrials, but his lackluster ability to characterize humans spills over into his aliens.

Take the Kzinti. When I'm teaching SF writing, I use them as an example of what I call "the intelligent gerbil" school of extraterrestrials: take a terrestrial animal, stand it on its hind legs, make it intelligent, but derive the vast majority of its characteristics from the terrestrial animal's behaviour. Kzinti are intelligent tigers, and that's really about 90% of all the creativity that went into them. (Likewise, my hypothetical intelligent gerbils live in Metropolis-like cities, powered by erudite gerbils running around in big wheels; they sleep in piles of cedar chips; they take water from tubes coming out of the walls.)

Niven's Puppeteers are better, in that at least they don't have any obvious physical terrestrial analog. But they're what I call "Spocks" — take one of the many characteristics that defines a human being's psyche, push that into the forefront to the exclusion of everything else, and call that an alien race. For Spock, it was stoicism, something we all have some degree of. For the puppeteers, it was cowardice, again something we all have some degree of. When Niven really wanted to characterize a puppeteer, he had to make it insane (like Nessus in Ringworld), since there was no real room for individuality in the standard puppeteer — its entire behaviour was dictated by the one exaggerated characteristic. That's because in humans, characterization and personality come from the proportions of our various attributes, and the struggle between them. One-attribute beings can't have meaningful individuality.

To see where this all falls down, and why Niven's aliens are in reality as flat as his human characters, try to define Homo sapiens in simplistic Nivenesque terms: "territorial omnivores obsessed with sex." Not bad, but it leaves out so much of what we are, and excludes hundreds of millions of individuals, that it's hard to consider it a truly useful definition.

I'll be impressed when someone can show me an alien race that contains within it the diversity of the human race (a race that includes everything from Stephen Hawking to Princess Di to Adolph Hitler to Mother Theresa to Golda Meir to Bill Cosby to Ursula Le Guin to Hirohito to Confucius to Jack the Ripper) and still have it come across as consistently alien. I really don't know any SF author who has pulled that off yet, but I'd wager money that when it does happen it'll be done by one of us who is lauded for his ability to characterize humans.

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