It’s All About the People

24 Oct

One thing that I have noticed cropping up in a lot of science-fiction, alternate history and libertarian books (to say nothing of online essays, timelines, etc) is an obsession with technology and guns. Technology is, naturally, an important part of any science-fiction novel, but it is quite possible for the technology to override the most important part of the story – the characters. The authors have a habit of detailing the nuts and bolts of their world-building instead of concentrating on the characters.

This is often more pronounced in libertarian fiction. Books such as Unintended Consequences, Enemies Foreign and Domestic and Patriots sometimes read more like gun manuals than actual fiction books. The authors show off their research into guns, gun laws and suchlike, but don’t think much about the people. Unintended Consequences, the best of the three, could lose a third of its material without degrading the story. Enemies Foreign and Domestic wasn’t always good at depicting the people; Patriots suggests strongly that the author knew next to nothing about human nature. The people he describes are not human. They would need a great deal of development before they could be considered one-dimensional.

Alternate history adds another dimension to this. Germany is generally believed to be the most advanced nation in World War Two. This isn’t completely true (it wasn’t the Germans who developed nukes, radar or mulberry harbours) but it is true enough that Germany was constantly pushing the limits of technology. Alternate historians have waxed rhapsodically over the promise of German development, development that was halted by the end of the war. By 1950, they think, Germany would have supersonic jet aircraft, flying wings and intercontinental bombers, missiles and spacecraft. By 1960, Germany would have bases on the moon.

(Studying this can actually lead to a lot of odd little factoids. Guess which nation had the most advanced radar technology during the early years of WW2?)

There is plenty of fodder for arguments over just what Germany would have developed, if it had had the chance. I have watched (and taken part in) online discussions where the merits of German flying wings, rockets and suchlike were debated endlessly. There have been no shortage of posts where writers have evaluated the different systems, often losing track of the true nature Nazi Regime when they consider the prospects for space development in a Nazi Victory Timeline. This becomes so intense that alternate historians have been known to sneer at books where technological development doesn’t suit their preconceptions.

I mention all this because of something I have been both praised for and criticised for. When I devised the universe of The Empire’s Corps, I made a very deliberate decision not to focus intensely on technology. Quite apart from the fact that the setting wouldn’t really allow a Honor Harrington-style arms race (at least not at first), I believed that the technology should not be allowed to overshadow the people who take part in the story. I don’t see any great advantage in knowing the precise details of the weapons deployed (and some writers go into absurd detail); I do see great advantage in knowing just what the people are actually thinking. If they’re heroes, why are they heroes? What are their motivations? What will they do to get what they want?

I made the same decision while writing the alternate history The Invasion of 1950. The true meat of the story, as I see it, is what happens to the people. What do the Germans think as they storm ashore on British soil? What do the British think as they desperately struggle to repel the invasion? What happens to the people trapped in the occupied zone? Who resists, who collaborates, who keeps their head down – and why? The people are important, the technology rather less so.

I once discussed an issue in The Living Will Envy The Dead with a friend of mine. The discussion lasted several days on a forum. It boiled down to a handful of lines in the book.

The people are the meat of the book. Everything else is just window-dressing.

Thoughts?

Christopher G. Nuttall

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7 Responses to “It’s All About the People”

  1. Terry Edmunds October 24, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    You are exactly right, Chris….great character development is what makes your books so interesting. As a reader I WANT to know what folks are thinking and I care what happens to them. Keep it up…though I am awed at how much you can juggle at one time.

  2. Bob Walters October 24, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Most “libertarian” fiction is no more libertarian than Mittens is a communist. The libertarianism described in most military fiction is more a combination of extreme laissez-faire capitalism and social Darwinism with a bit of the old John Birch Society thrown in. It is generally based on faulty thinking of a rather poor 20th century Russian novelist. Libertarianism is really on a spectrum with Authoritarianism. This bastardization of libertarianism seems to come from the US where the term has been coopted by political hacks like Ron Paul and his son for their own political purposes. Given that Christopher Nuttall comes from Britain I’m somewhat surprised at his limited presentation of libertarianism as even the term originated in England. To learn about libertarianism I would recommend going back to it first usage in the late 1700s and read about it development over the centuries. Alas this is too much trouble intellectual investment for people who would rather shoot than think.

    In any case The Empire’s Corp series is still a great read and very enjoyable as is much of Mr. Nuttall’s work. If you like military science fiction one generally has to put up with the annoyingly superficial and unworkable philosophical system. However, even thought it does tend to piss one off it still stimulates thinking and that is always a good thing. One should never limit themselves only to works that agree with ones own philosophy.

    • Terry Edmunds October 24, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

      Well said, Bob!! I think also that Chris gets into the mind of the warrior really well and understands the honor, the horror, the angst that’s all included in being a warrior…in virtually all his books. Been there, done that and that’s one large reason I enjoy these books.

    • Mike Atraides November 5, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

      What Bob said is pretty much my own take as well. Well put, Sir! 🙂

      And you are very right in putting this emphasis on the people, Chris, this is why I do very much enjoy your books, even if we certainly come from different points of the the political spectrum. But I much prefer engaging with a considerate and intellectually honest libertarian or conservative, than with many fellow “progressives”.

      In the end it is always people who count, not the trappings or “special effects”, something that too many authors seem to forget, as you rightly observed.

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