Who are these people? They are two characters from classic novels, one from the genre of science fiction and the other from English literature. R. Daneel Olivaw is a humanoid robot from The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and Lady Constance Chatterley is the heroine of the infamous banned book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. Why in the hell would I link two such very different characters? I thought you’d never ask.
I wish to answer two questions:
- Why isn’t science fiction considered literary?
- What will motivate robots?
I won’t hold the best for last. The reason why Connie Chatterley is a great literary character and why people continue to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover is because we get inside her brain and hear her thoughts. Lady Chatterley’s Lover foreshadows everything that made the 1960s famous: feminism, sexual revolution, environmentalism, personal freedom, war, class struggle, artistic expression, and the seven deadly words you can’t say on TV, but at the time D. H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, you couldn’t say them in books either.
Isaac Asimov also deals with weighty subjects and imagines a future where people must deal with artificial intelligence, but there is a big difference in how he tells his story. We don’t know what R. Daneel Olivaw thinks. We don’t see R. Daneel struggle to understand the people around him. We don’t know what motivates and drives him forward in his life.
Wouldn’t you love to read The Caves of Steel written by D. H. Lawrence? Will we have to wait for an AI author to tell that tale? Or can a human writer think like a machine? For the science fiction writer who wants to attempt this near impossible task I recommend they use Lady Chatterley’s Lover for their model. Not that I’m suggesting anything as crude as Lady’s Chatterley’s Android Lover (which I’m afraid many hack writers would attempt).
What makes a great literary novel is a well defined character set in a well defined time and place. Science fiction is hurt by our vague knowledge of future details, but that doesn’t mean science fiction writers can’t succeed with rich imagined details. I believe Clifford “Kip” Russell in Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel is a great example of a well defined character in a well defined place and time in the future. Few science fiction novels come this close to explaining the motivations of its character, and oddly this was for a book aimed at children and marketed with a silly title to ride on the coattails of a popular TV show of the time.
Robots, androids and AI minds have always been up to now either anthropomorphic characters or intelligent sounding mechanical parrots echoing their programming. We see their bodies, either metal, artificial flesh or computer housing, and we hear their words, but we don’t know what they feel, see, hear, smell, taste, and especially we don’t know what they think. Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and you will be shown what Constance Chatterley senses and what she thinks and we get to understand her emotionally, which few people imagine robots having, but will they?
Most science fiction readers love action and ideas and don’t want their SF novels cluttered up with such slow details. And that’s cool. If you love comic book realism. The reason why Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series feels far more realistic than most science fiction novels is because he has more of these slow details for his characters. He doesn’t come close to the real time realism of D. H. Lawrence, but Robinson’s story is far less sketchy than most SF.
It doesn’t take much inner landscape description to make an effective science fiction story. For example “Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh. (And I beg you to try the wonderful audio version that is so beautifully read by Amy H. Sturgis at StarShipSofa at the 1:00:00 hour mark. “Bridesicle” is nominated for the Nebula this year.) “Bridesicle” packs an emotional wallop because of the inner dialog, and because it expresses identifiable emotion, it makes a rather silly idea far more realistic.
If Isaac Asimov could have written The Caves of Steel with R. Daneel and Elijah Baley’s inner thoughts and motivations it would have been a tremendously powerful novel of the future. It’s still a wonderfully fun read. And I think it’s sequel, The Naked Sun, is even better because Asimov worked harder to incorporate human emotions into the story.
JWH – 3/21/10