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Character-driven SF

I mentioned on Twitter when I was reading Ancillary Sword recently (SO GOOD) that Leckie makes me want to read and write all the character-driven SF. To be honest, “hard” SF bores me, and I am generally a very character-oriented reader. So I thought I would at least list a few of my favorites. If you have recommendations, please feel free to chime in!

Since I’ve already mentioned her, Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary books obviously belong here. She’s so good at writing a story that’s both intensely personal and all about implications for the wider world and I looove it.

Leckie has a couple of clear influences (and if anyone lists her influences and leaves these two off, I give them a SEVERE side-eye): Lois McMaster Bujold, especially the Vorkosigan saga and perhaps even more so, C.J.Cherryh‘s Foreigner books.

Also: Doris Egan‘s Gate of Ivory, which I believe I first heard about on Jo Walton’s blog, are not nearly as well known as they should be. These are just barely SF as opposed to fantasy, but they’re also fantastic.

Connie Willis‘s Oxford books go in a very different direction (time-travel) but they are amazing and heart-breaking precisely because they are intensely concerned with characters, both past and future. Also, Promised Land, which she wrote with Cynthia DeFelice, and is one of my favorite comfort reads.

The Touchstone Trilogy, by Andrea K. Host, is definitely character-centered, as is And All the Stars. Touchstone, arguably, is science-fantasy rather than science fiction, but I’m putting it here anyway because I can.

R.J. Anderson‘s Quicksilver/Ultraviolet duology, rare and wonderful YA SF, are also thoughtful explorations of identity and family and growing-up.

(Authors I have deliberately not included in this post: John Scalzi, and Orson Scott Card. Both look like they’re character-driven, perhaps, but are actually primarily concerned with quite different things, in my reading.)

Okay, so what else am I missing?

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

18 replies on “Character-driven SF”

Thank you for this post! I’ve been tentatively exploring the world of sci-fi books, and finding it difficult to navigate for the same reasons you mention: I prefer character-driven stories and have a difficult time getting into hard sci-fi. I adore the Vorkosigan saga, and Quicksilver/Ultraviolet, and the Touchstone Trilogy. Out of the others you mention, I’m only familiar with Willis, but the first Foreigner book is on its way to be via ILL!

Yeah, hard sf bores me to tears. I DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOUR SCIENCE. I bet you’d like almost all of the books on my list.

It’s a western in space with a completely different feel than Firefly and I really enjoy it.

Karin Lowachee’s WARCHILD books are equally character-driven (and equally influenced by Cherryh, though in a very different direction–taking off from the Alliance/Union books, not the Foreigner series). Chris Moriarty’s SPIN arguably have the trappings of hard SF, but they’re very, very character-driven. Now I need to go look at my shelves for others…

I’ve been looking for a copy of GATE OF IVORY, but still haven’t found one. Looks like I need to step up my efforts!

Interesting that all the authors mentioned so far are women. I hesitate to stereotype, but I have noticed that almost all the SF I read and enjoy is written by women–precisely because they do focus on characters and societies, which are far more interesting to me than scientific concepts.

I started Warchild and couldn’t get past the opening scene. Is it worth trying again?

I wonder if Chris Moriarty is the same one who wrote the awesome mg Inquisitor’s Apprentice books–if so (and it seems likely) she’s already gold in my book!

Gate of Ivory is extremely enjoyable; I wish she’d write a few more, but I think she’s busy doing TV things.

And I think you are on to something with the gender note. I thought about it as i made this list–as I said, even Scalzi and OSC aren’t really interested in character and society the way almost all the women SF writers I know are.

Whether WARCHILD’s worth getting past the opening scene really depends on the reasons you didn’t finish it–if it’s the 2nd person POV then I’d say yes, definitely, it’s an interesting stylistic choice but I think she makes it work (and most of the rest of the book is in 1st person). If it’s the trauma of terrible things happening to a child–well, the book was inspired by accounts she was reading of child soldiers, and I think it deals very thoughtfully with the main character’s trauma, but there is definitely a lot of bad stuff that happens to a young kid, so I can totally understand skipping it.

It looks like Chris Moriarty of SPIN STATE is indeed the same who wrote THE INQUISITOR’S APPRENTICE–I don’t read much MG, but now I want to give that one a try.

I really love Scalzi as a blogger, but I’ve been left cold by his books–I think possibly because, as he’s acknowledged, he’s a very commercial author, and his books thus seem more gimmick-driven then character-driven. RIMRUNNERS and OLD MAN’S WAR are both military sf of a sort, but they’re nothing at all alike…

It was a combination of the two, with the trauma being the main issue. I may give it another try sometime to see if it strikes me differently.

I really liked both Inquisitor’s Apprentice and its sequel, but then I do like MG.

Scalzi’s books are popcorn books for me–I like reading them, but I can’t live on them. But I agree, they’re not really interested in their characters as characters.

Oh, I really want to read ANCILLARY SWORD!

Mary Beth, I read a lot more female authors than male and I kind of think I agree with you, but you made me try to think of counterexamples. What do you all think of:

Barry Hughart, BRIDGE OF BIRDS
Barry B Longyear, INFINITY HOLD
Daniel Abraham, the Dagger and Coin series
Scott Lynch, the Locke Lamora series
Guy Gavriel Kay, UNDER HEAVEN

I would call all of those books character-driven, though I don’t necessarily think that all the books by all those authors are character-driven. Of that set, the first is the most charming and everybody should definitely try it!

I was worried it wouldn’t be as good as Ancillary Justice, BUT IT WAS.

Well, but the Gaiman, Lynch, and Kay books are all fantasy, not science fiction, right? I haven’t read the others, although most are on my tbr list.

Hughart and the Dagger and Coin books are fantasy, too, I think (and yes, BRIDGE OF BIRDS is delightful and everyone should read it.) I haven’t read the Longyear or the Corey, but I’ll put them on my library list.

I was about to say that SF tends to sacrifice character to plot or gimmick more than fantasy does, but on reflection I think it’s just that in bog-standard fantasy, characters are more easily sorted into archetypes. They may be less easily interchangeable than, say, the members of some military science fiction platoon, but that doesn’t mean they’re any more developed.

And of course there are different regions of both SF and fantasy; there’s a lot of fantasy that leaves me completely cold. (But I still describe myself as more of a fantasy reader than SF, hmm.)

For myself, I do think gender has a lot to do with it–generally speaking, especially recently, I’m simply much more interested in books written by women. I resonate with them in a way that books written by men have to work to achieve.

Whoops, I wasn’t reading carefully and didn’t notice the SF vs fantasy thing. Yep, that pretty much leaves only INFINITY HOLD and the Corey series in my list.

Mary Beth, I think you’re perfectly right that you do get more stereotypes in fantasy than SF. This can sometimes be a feature rather than a bug, because if you have the Lost Prince and the Evil King, you can spend your time developing other things. Uh, I should now provide examples. I’ll have to think about it.

I’ve been meaning to try Corey for awhile. I’ll have to bump him up the list.

I would be interested in your examples if you manage to think of them.

I feel like I might have tried to read Grass at some point, but it was an ebook which is often a dicey proposition. I should try to find a print copy.

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