I'm about one-third of the way through John Scalzi's Old Man's War, and an enjoying the heck out of it. The premise (spoilers) - that in the future old folks can trade in their old bodies for new, awesome, Olympic level young ones in exchange for serving in the galactic army for ten years and for leaving Earth and never coming back - is simple, solid, and skilfully explicated. And the technical details he weaves in to that premise - Microsoft Office like brain-embedded PDAs/computers, the new young super-bodies being green to take advantage of photosynthesis, and super-smart guns among them - are fun and clever. I'm eagerly anticipating finishing the book and moving on to the sequel.
Anyone sense a "but" coming?
Every time I read a jeremiad against the bias the critical world has for "literary" fiction, along with the concomitant claim that there is no distinction between "literary" fiction and "popular" fiction (Michael Blowhard over at 2 Blowhards writes one every month or so) I feel vaguely offended. (Why do I feel offended? I have no idea). And reading Old Man's War I think I hit upon why. As much as I'm enjoying the book, there are moments that keep putting me off. Namely, that the way the characters deal with this immense change they are thrust into never seems psychologically real. I keep thinking that it's all a bit too easy.
As great as Scalzi is at coming up with these wonderfully imaginative and poppy ideas, and as smooth as his exposition is and as nicely tied into his moving-forward plot, he's not really taking the time to make his characters - even, and in some ways especially, his main character, John Perry, real. Perry's not some cardboard cutout character, or some simply painted type, but he's not psychologically real in the same way that a character by a "literary" novelist is - and not just the greats, but current, popular literary novelists, like Barbara Kingsolver, or Edward P. Jones.
To be fair, this isn't really Scalzi's fault, per se. For the kind of novel he's writing - a plot and idea-driven adventure sci-fi novel, he doesn't have the time necessary to create such complex characterisations. The knock on literary fiction is that not much happens, that most literary novels are largely plotless, or have simple, slow-moving plots. But that's for a reason - to create the kind of complex portrait of a character I'm talking about takes a lot of time, a lot of time spent with the character, inside his or her head, and seeing him or her react to mundane things. A "literary plot," generally speaking, can't move as fast as an adventure plot.
I'm not suggesting that Scalzi has failed, or that literary novels are "better" than popular novels. But I am suggesting that it might be fun to see what some contemporary literary novelists could do working in some of the richly imaginative worlds created by great contemporary sci-fi and fantasy writers. I'd love to see Michael Chabon, for example, write a short story set in the Old Man's War universe. Or Barbara Kingsolver to write a short novel set in the His Dark Materials world. By taking the best of what literary novelists do - create complex, very real-feeling characters and drama - and combining it with the beautifully imagined worlds that the likes of a Scalzi conjure up - I really do think some great, great, fun literature could result.