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).