Why doesn’t genre fiction deal more with work? Not the triumphant whatever-the-protagonist-does-to-save-the-world work, but what the protagonist does to pay the rent. Too often work is set-dressing, a garment that the character puts on and takes off at will. And that irritates me because most of us–whether we love our work or hate it–are profoundly shaped by it.
In the olden days almost all heroes of SF were scientists, engineers, or military men, because the point was, well, nuts and bolts and theory and solutions and science. (Oh, and they were most often male, too, but let’s put that aside for now.) But as SF broadened, mixing ingenious solutions and with emotional experience, work became weirdly less important. And I think that’s a loss.
“But I read for escape!” says my theoretical reader. ”I don’t want to read about work. I get enough of that…well, at work!” But without a real sense of what a character does–what process engages him or her, what skills she brings with her, that character is unmoored, and the reader is too. Even if the fantasy protagonist is a princess…what does a princess do? These days, open shopping centers, visit hospitals, provide another public face for the Family Business. And it’s hard work (if you’ve never seen Roman Holiday, go watch it now–it handles the question with a deft, light hand). Work colors how you experience the world: an architect might see things that a cook misses; a cook will pick up tastes that a masseuse might not; the masseuse has a distinct tactile approach to the world…and so on. And work confers status, and status shapes who your character is and how she deals with the world.
When I wrote Mules, my story about life extension, I made the protagonist a history teacher, because I wanted to play with how easily a person whose job is to study human behavior through the lens of history can be distracted by love and forget all the lessons of his own past. The protagonist of The Stone War, John Tietjen, is an architect–he loves New York City even as it lies in ruins, and he sees it in a very particular way; he also understands some useful things about building and systems, helpful to making a small oasis of livability in the city.
Perhaps I’m a little crazy on this topic: in my family the first thing one asked about anyone was what he did. And very often genre fiction depends on the protagonist moving away from his normal, accustomed world of work and home–going on a quest, being kidnapped by aliens, whatever. But you take your experience and skills with you: Taran, the hero in Lloyd Alexander’s wonderful Prydain books, starts as an Assistant Pig Keeper; he carries that experience and training with him when he’s learning to become a king and a warrior. John Craig, the protagonist of an old SF fave of mine, Space Relations, is a diplomat, and despite all his adventures, its his skill in sussing out undercurrents and politics that helps him survive and save the day.
Are there books you like where the protagonists’ work is central? I’d love to make a list…