Lance Lockjaw and the problem of sci-fi

Lance Lockjaw, our intrepid hero (cue generic hero image, cape optional), has a problem. The problem requires some super duper clever solution, but let’s keep it simple. A micro-meteorite has punched a hole in Lance’s ship and he needs to plug it so that everyone doesn’t die a horrible death.

Do we make the story about the super duper clever solution or do we make the story about Lance? Which, do you, as a sci-fi reader want?

So, I see two options. There are probably more, but let’s keep it simple.

Option 1:

We open in the middle of the disaster with Lance realizing that if he doesn’t come up with a super duper clever way of plugging the hole, he and everyone aboard the ship are going to die. We know nothing about Lance. We don’t know his thoughts on anything except that he doesn’t want to die. We don’t know anything about the ship or the people aboard. The story is a series of try and fail cycles. He does A. A either leads to failure or success. If success, it doesn’t necessarily solve the issue but may lead to another problem. So now Lance has to do B. Try and fail. Rinse and repeat until at last, he solves the problem. Now, since it’s me writing, Lance eventually wins. But the story is nothing but a bunch of Lance does A, B, … D and wins. Hurrah!

Some would call this a plot-driven story. A plot is a series of events that are somehow connected so that A leads to B leads to C. The people are incidental to the plot even though they are used to make A or B or C happen in some way or another.

To say that this makes for a “thin” story is a nice way of saying that it’s not much of a Story. It’s a plot. But sci-fi is about plot, isn’t it? It’s about the events, the science, the clever solution, isn’t it?

Option 2:

Rather than opening in the middle of the disaster, we open not just with Lance, but inside of Lance’s head. We get a sense of who he is, what he cares about, his take on what he’s doing, and why he’s on a spaceship. As readers, we get his thoughts and opinions. What he loves and hates. What’s important to him and why. We see what he sees, feel what he feels, experience the world through his eyes.

It’s NOT an emotion-fest where we find out that he’s a guy with a sensitive side, but we are shown that he’s a no-nonsence kind of a guy. He takes his job seriously. He’s a leader. He understands risk and sacrifice and he’s willing to do what it takes to get the job done.

When that micro-meteorite hits, we want him to win not because he’s going to show us a super duper clever new way of getting out of this mess, but because we don’t want him and his people to die. He still gets to do A and B and C and D. If the story is word-limited he may only get to do A and B but he still wins. Hurrah!

Some would call this a character-driven story. Here the people are not incidental to the plot. The plot may be rather different based on whether Lance Lockjaw or Prudence Pureheart (his equally competent but voluptuous counterpart) makes the decision to try B but not A. While her choices may be different because of who she is, in the end it’s still a win, because my good guys win. Always.

I know that I’d rather read the character-driven story even though I personally find the dichotomy of plot vs character to be a false one. Even in the “thin” version, if Prudence was the protagonist, it’d still be thin if it was only about the sequence of events. Which is why I think all stories are, ultimately, about characters.

So, I’d like to know if you’re someone who reads to find out how they plugged that hole in their hull. Lance could be a robot for all you cared. You’re about the clever idea. You are an option 1 reader.

Or are you someone who, while intrigued by the problem and the idea of solving it, would rather experience the solution through a not-thin plot that’s more about the character? You are an option 2 reader.

There is no right or wrong answer. I’m just curious about what potential readers want. To paraphrase a certain cute little robot, “Input. I need input.”

2 thoughts on “Lance Lockjaw and the problem of sci-fi”

  1. I’ve never read many of the first type of story, perhaps because I’m drawn towards character driven without realising. I’m reading James Patterson’s Cat and Mouse at the moment which I guess is very plot driven. There is some info about the characters but not enough to make me care about them. It generally takes a lot to get me to care about characters, like an entire novel. The question actually makes me think of horror movies, and particularly Cube. Obviously the characters in horror are very thin, and in Cube it is all about how they figure out how to get out of the cube. Similar with Saw in solving the riddles of how to get out, with gory consequences if they don’t. And I do like these kind of movies a lot, I think because the consequences feel so visceral.

    But ultimately I would go for character driven, because I want a character to hook me. I will watch Saw and be entertained, but when I watch or read something with a character that hooks then that hook goes deep.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Both, though it’s rare that someone does the first type of story well. The first author to come to mind is Hal Clement. I can’t recall anything personal about any of his characters, yet his science fiction is infused with emotion, from humor to horror. The second type is easier to do well, because readers (including myself) will forgive minor plot holes as long as the characters are interesting.


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