Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Comet Without A Heart

Well, someone did ask me about the book Heart of the Comet, which I mentioned the other day as prompting some reflections on why I no longer seem capable of enjoying hard SF, or at least the majority of it. And because, hey, if you can't plagiarize yourself, who can you plagiarize?, I figured I'd expand on my answer a bit and post it here.

So, I was reading this book, which is by popular SF writers Gregory Benford and David Brin, and which was published in 1986 in honor of the return of Halley's Comet. I kept meaning to read it then and for some reason never got around to it, but when I found it a couple of years ago at a library sale I picked it up. Hey, I may be slow about it, but I do tie up unfinished business from my youth eventually.

Anyway, reading it now I kept thinking -- as I often seem to these days -- that I would probably have liked the book much better if I'd read it when I was fifteen and much less, erm, discerning. Because it's not an intrinsically bad story, really, even if it is hugely far-fetched. (It involves a long-term expedition to the comet and, among other things, the discovery of alien life there.) But the writing -- which is really just bog-standard hard-SF writing -- grates on me. Example: the book contains a number of time-jumps, and the individual sections tend to start with some character looking around and thinking, basically, "Gosh, here it is, ten years later, and here are all the things that have changed..." Now, real people might occasionally think things like that, but if they do, they usually have some reason, other that that it's time to introduce the reader to the next bit of story. Here, it just doesn't sound remotely natural, and that's characteristic of the tone of the whole thing. The characters aren't really there to be characters, they're there because, well, you're supposed to have characters in a novel, I guess. And you're supposed to flesh them out and make them interesting, so everybody gets one or two character quirks and a bit of Significant Backstory, but it all feels, to me at least, very artificial. And the direction the book ultimately takes involves one particular character doing things not because they're the sorts of things any sane human being would do, but because the authors clearly thought it would be neat and would take the story to its desired conclusion. Probably what ultimately bothers me, really, is the sense that one could easily re-write all the characters, give them different personalities, different backstories, different relationships, and nothing significant would change, because that stuff is all just detail painted in between the supporting structures of the plot, rather than actually contributing to the shape of the story at all.

And, while I'm complaining, let me just point out one specific thing that drives me completely up a wall, which these guys do over and over and over in this book: using descriptions and epithets instead of character names, even when they're completely inappropriate in context. It's always "the Hawaiian woman" and "the tall Mauritanian," and so on, using people's nationalities and physical descriptions and job titles and such, regardless of whether those things are relevant to the subject at hand, or even the way the POV character would think of them at all. It gives one the impression that the writers are worried we're going to forget who these people are. Which, actually, is a very real danger, because the book's so full of so many forgettable people. Tip for authors: if you feel the compulsive need to keep reminding your readers which character is which, you have a serious problem with characterization.

Anyway, the point is, I'm finding it harder and harder to enjoy a book in which I find the characterization and the prose to be awkward and clunky, no matter how much interesting scientific speculation there is in it. And, of course, it's the scientific stuff that's the focus in hard SF, with hard SF writers usually just not caring as much about the characterization and the prose, as well as often not being very good at it if they do care. I also find, increasingly, that while I'm happy to read about planetary geology or theoretical starship engines at great length in non-fiction, long passages on such subjects make my eyes glaze over very rapidly in a novel.

I try to tell myself that, really, it's a case of different strokes for different folks, and these guys are just serving their audience, because there are a lot of people who are just there for the nifty ideas and aren't put off by the clunky exposition and stuff. But I can't help the fact that, in my heart of hearts, I think of it as just plain bad writing. And, OK, really, there's nothing intrinsically bad about plot-based, rather than character-based storytelling. But I don't see why it has to be an either-or thing.

I looked up some reviews of Heart of the Comet after I read it, and found one which suggested that it might make a good movie. I think I sort of agree. In fact, I think it would be much improved by being made into a movie, in much the same way that The Hunt for Red October was improved by it... Because in a movie, you can't have long expository passages about submarine engines; you have to focus on character, dialog, and moving the action along. Sadly, though, genuine hard SF movies are even rarer than well-written hard SF novels.


  1. I bought a copy years ago, probably when it first came out in paperback, and I never got around to reading it. I have a few books like that, but in this case I think I've been worried that the "hard science" parts will be terribly dated (even to a non-science person like me). Your post suggests there are lots of other reasons not to finally read it.

    I'm not sure what the last "hard science" I read. I guess Spin counts, but I tend not to reach for that stufff anymore.

  2. The science isn't all that dated, really (although it's possible that someone who knows more about comets than me might find more nits to pick on that score). It's not even especially good science, though... The biology seems pretty dubious to me, or at least the biological technology as presented in the book seems hugely over-optimistic.

    I'd say Spin definitely counts as hard SF, but it's a rare and welcome example of hard SF that gets the human stuff right as well as presenting nifty scientific ideas.