Simak, Sturgeon, Harrison

December 13, 2019 James

Since 2001, I’ve kept a list of books I read each year. I usually get through about fifty, a relatively small number compared to those I’ve met who devour 300+ novels every year.

As this December rolled around, I realized I had read only forty-five, and I decided to try to reach fifty, which gave me an excuse to pick books from the 60’s and 70’s, that time in publishing where SF authors wrote novels under two hundred pages, thin books that could be read quickly. Since a used bookstore recently opened nearby, I had the perfect opportunity to find some gems.

Although I’ve read a lot of science fiction over the years, my main interest has been fantasy, so there are a number of SF authors I haven’t read. I picked up a novel and a short story anthology by Theodore Sturgeon, a novel by Clifford D. Simak, and a science-fantasy by M. John Harrison. Reading through them, I was struck by their different approaches to characterization.

The Simak novel, Cemetery World, was well-written and engaging enough. It is typical of literature from that era: the characters are given little personality, their thoughts centered on accomplishing their goals. Somewhere along their trek through an abandoned Earth made into an enormous cemetery, the hero realizes the attractive woman he is traveling with is more than a nuisance—something most men might have realized earlier on—the beginning of their falling in love. But at least to Simak’s credit, she is portrayed as heroically courageous and determined, though her personality, like his, lacks depth.

The Pastel City, set centuries after an apocalyptic disaster, reflects a sub-genre that combines futuristic technology with medieval swordplay, a tradition going back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels. Harrison is a fine wordsmith, whose prose elevates a standard quest into an enjoyable reading experience. Most impressive is his deft use of quick characterization. There is little of the introspection and lengthy backstories of modern SF. The main characters are given one or two basic traits: The hero, Cromis is a brooding, pessimistic poet; Tomb the dwarf is cruel and fascinated by anything mechanical, Grif is hot-headed and emotional. But the trick is that Harrison always keeps each of them in character, reacting exactly as they should, even when they do something unexpected. I was fascinated by how quickly I related to them given such bare-bone characterization.

I had only read a couple of Theodore Sturgeon’s short stories over the years, but knew he was considered a pioneer in SF for the depth of his characters. His novel, The Synthetic Man, set among a group of circus performers, is somewhat dark because of their alienation from society, but the concepts are fascinating and the characterization much deeper than anything in the previous two novels. The dwarf, Zena, has an especially well-developed personality. For SF, Sturgeon was definitely ahead of his time.
I came away from reading these books with a broader perspective on science fiction, writing, and characterization.

Whether a character is an Everyman like Simak’s Fletcher Carson, a person given one or two traits like Harrison’s Cromis, or someone as multi-layered as Sturgeon’s Zena, the depth of character must serve the story, and any of the three methods can be correct.