Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Fiction
One of my pet topics, on which I will post more one of these days, is the Rationalist in Fiction. Most of the time—it goes almost without saying—the Rationalist is done completely wrong. In Hollywood, the Rationalist is a villain, or a cold emotionless foil, or a child who has to grow into a real human being, or a fool whose probabilities are all wrong, etcetera. Even in science fiction, the Rationalist character is rarely done right—bearing the same resemblance to a real rationalist, as the mad scientist genius inventor who designs a new nuclear reactor in a month, bears to real scientists and engineers.
Perhaps this is because most speculative fiction, generally speaking, is interested in someone battling monsters or falling in love or becoming a vampire, or whatever, not in being rational… and it would probably be worse fiction, if the author tried to make that the whole story. But that can’t be the entire problem. I’ve read at least one author whose plots are not about rationality, but whose characters are nonetheless, in passing, realistically rational.
That author is Lawrence Watt-Evans. His work stands out for a number of reasons, the first being that it is genuinely unpredictable. Not because of a postmodernist contempt for coherence, but because there are events going on outside the hero’s story, just like real life.
Most authors, if they set up a fantasy world with a horrible evil villain, and give their main character the one sword that can kill that villain, you could guess that, at the end of the book, the main character is going to kill the evil villain with the sword.
Not Lawrence Watt-Evans. In a Watt-Evans book, it’s entirely possible that the evil villain will die of a heart attack halfway through the book, then the character will decide to sell the sword because they’d rather have the money, and then the character uses the money to set up an investment banking company.
That didn’t actually happen in any particular Watt-Evans book—I don’t believe in spoilers—but it gives you something of the flavor.
And Watt-Evans doesn’t always do this, either—just as, even in real life, things sometimes do go as you expect.
It’s this strange realism that charms me about Watt-Evans’s work. It’s not done as a schtick, but as faithfulness-to-reality. Real life doesn’t run on perfect rails of dramatic necessity; neither is it random postmodern chaos. I admire an author who can be faithful to that, and still tell a story.
Watt-Evans’s characters, if they happen to be rationalists, are realistic rationalists—they think the same things that you or I would, in their situations.
If the character gets catapulted into a fantasy world, they actually notice the resemblance to their fantasy books, wonder about it, and think to themselves, “If this were a fantasy book, the next thing that would happen is X...” (which may or may not happen, because Watt-Evans doesn’t write typical fantasy books). It’s not done as a postmodern self-referential schtick, but as a faithfulness-to-reality; they think what a real rational person would think, in their shoes.
If the character finds out that it is their destiny to destroy the world, they don’t waste time on immense dramatic displays—after they get over the shock, they land on their feet and start thinking about it in more or less the fashion that you or I would in their shoes. Not just, “How do I avoid this? Are there any possibilities I’ve overlooked?” but also “Am I sure this is really what’s going on? How reliable is this information?”
If a Watt-Evans character gets their hands on a powerful cheat, they are going to exploit it to the fullest and actively think about creative new ways to use it. If they find a staff of healing, they’re going to set up a hospital. If they invent a teleportation spell, they’re going to think about new industrial uses.
I hate it when some artifact of world-cracking power is introduced and then used as a one-time plot device. Eventually you get numb, though.
But if a Watt-Evans character finds a device with some interesting magical power halfway through the book, and there’s some clever way that the magical power can be used to take over the world, and that character happens to want to take over the world, she’s going to say the hell with whatever she was previously doing and go for it.
Most fictional characters are stupid, because they have to be. This occurs for several reasons; but in speculative fiction, a primary reason is that the author wants to throw around wish-fulfillment superpowers, and the author isn’t competent enough to depict the real consequences of halfway intelligent people using that power.
Lawrence Watt-Evans’s stories aren’t about the intelligence or rationality of his characters. Nonetheless, Watt-Evans writes intelligent characters, and he’s willing to deal with the consequences, which are huge.
Maybe that’s the main reason we don’t see many realistic rationalists in fiction.
I’d like to see more rationalist fiction. Not necessarily in Watt-Evans’s exact vein, because we already have Watt-Evans, and thus, there is no need to invent him. But rationalist fiction is hard to do well; there are plenty of cliches out there, but few depictions that say something new or true.
Lawrence Watt-Evans is not going to be everyone’s cuppa tea, but if you like SF&F already, give it a try. Suggested starting books: The Unwilling Warlord (fantasy), Denner’s Wreck (SF).