Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Arthur C. Clarke, the Romance Issue, and Science Fiction

I've recently read Sunstorm, the second volume in Arthur C. Clarke's collaborative series with Stephen Baxter. The first volume in this series, Time's Eye, was a jumble at virtually all levels. Sunstorm is more enjoyable, the story of a human confrontation with Monolith-type entities with less than benevolent intentions. Baxter's influence is in this theme, I believe.

While I was reading this book, something nagged me, reminding me of Clarke's famous solo 1951 The Sands of Mars. One major character in Sunstorm is the stellar astronomer Mikhail Martynov, a fortysomething who had the misfortune to be born gay in the repressive environment of Vladivostok, later in life Martynov taking advantage of his brains and the mobility provided Russia's citizens by their countryside membership in the Eurasian Union to flee, by which time he had lost all interest in romantic dalliances. The major protagonist in The Sands of Mars is the British writer Martin Gibson, an accomplished journalist who had an affair with a young woman when he was younger, suffered a nervous breakdown for some unspecified reason, and then went on to international--and interplanetary--success as a happily single man.

Thinking back over the Clarke novels I've read, I find myself hard-pressed to recall any prominently heterosexual characters. In 2001 and that book's sequels, for instance, both Heywood Floyd and Dave Bowman are written as having had heterosexual relationships safely displaced, whether to the comfortably distant past or offstage. The only depiction of a functioning heterosexual relationship that I can think of in Clarke's books is in 1986's The Songs of Distant Earth, between an Earth-born human crewman and a Thalassan colonist. (The original short story is available here.) Even that is compromised by the crewman's decision to leave for the distant world of Sagan Two while leaving his lover, pregnant with his child, behind.

It isn't as if Clarke wrote more convincing gay relationships, or any sort of convincing and enduring relationships at all, in his major novels. Re-reading some of them recently, I've noticed that the relationships he does show--yes, even in The Songs of Distant Earth--strike me as hollow and unconvincing, as reiterations of conventional wisdoms in properly purple prose. Ryan Bigge observed that the fiction of Douglas is marked by a similar lack.

I have always found the weakest, vaguest sections of his novels to be those all-too-rare paragraphs that portray male-female relationships. (Which, obviously, is not to suggest that gay writers can't accurately describe such relationships. To argue that being gay excludes a writer from discussing heterosexuality is equivalent to saying that a male author is incapable of creating a convincing female protagonist or vice versa).

But even Doug seems to silently acknowledge his deficiencies in this department. One tactic is evasion, evidenced by Generation X's Andy stating "Claire and I never fell in love, even though we both tried hard. It happens." Many Doug protagonists -- the characters most likely to embody portions of Coupland -- are single. These supra-observant eunuchs express their love and loss through other characters.

Another tactic of Coupland's is romance rushing, like the following example from
Shampoo Planet: "The experience had made Anna-Louise, well, randy, and I was summoned to her apartment. By midnight, hours later, we were both lying blissfully on her futon, under the down coverlet, her face and body like a recently vacated carnival site, disconcertingly unchanged by the burst of life so recently bubbling on top."

Many of Doug's characters are tentative romantics. "I would like to fall in love again but my only hope is that love doesn't happen to me so often after this," notes a character in
Life After God. "I'm new at this love thing," says Dan from Microserfs. (Interestingly, Dan and Karla never consummate their relationship. But then again, it is a novel about computer geeks. :)

Even more interesting is Bug from
Microserfs. Half-way through the novel he suddenly blurts out that he's gay: "I've been 'inning' myself for too long," he said, "and now it's time to out myself. It's something you'll all have to deal with, but believe me, I've been dealing with it a lot longer than you."

(Yes, Coupland is.) While I certainly don't claim to be as good a writer as either man, looking back at some of the short stories I'd written before I clued in I noticed the same kind of tendency towards a certain flatness, an overintellectualizing of passion that removed the emotion that my characters should have been communicating from my readers. Things make so much more sense now.

This topic didn't attract my interest only tangentially because of Clarke's sexual orientation. Once I noticed the pattern, it raised an important question in my mind about the genre of science fiction. Clarke is unquestionably a classic writer of science fiction, one of the few writers still alive and still active in his field. Clarke, it's safe to say, is one of the writers in science fiction's canon, a model for his successors and contemporaries. Clarke does have his weaknesses when it comes to relationships, for whatever reason. From my readings of other science fiction novels--other novels by classic writers, other novels written by my contemporaries--I think that this weakness is common to the genre as a whole. Evasion, romance-rushing, tentative romance: All of these tactics are common whenever science fiction writers try to deal with romance.

This, perhaps sadly, isn't as common as it should be. Perhaps I'm reading the wrong books, perhaps I'm jaded, but human relationships generally seem to be neglected in science fiction in favour of exciting ideas or new technologies. Science fiction is a literature of ideas, I grant that, but isn't it literature first and foremost? What does it say about science fiction's writers and readers when no one notices this? What does it say about the future of the genre itself?

UPDATE (10:23 PM) : Crossposted to rec.arts.sf.written, and minor typo corrected.

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