High stakes, low stakes

With spoilers for

Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Cixin Liu

The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

When writing, it is of course important to keep the reader engaged. For that reason, a question you will often hear editors ask is: “What’s at stake?” What is there to lose, what is there to gain, and why should the reader care? Stakes are what carry the story forward; they help build tension and keep the reader turning pages.

 

It is easy to assume that high stakes in SFF have to mean the kingdom, realm, planet or universe are at risk, and that personal stakes, such as relationships being fraught, are low stakes which will not serve the tension. I don’t believe that is true: I think it is possible for small, intimate stakes to be rattling, and sometimes, paradoxically, for very high stakes to fall flat as the reader ceases to care.

I will be looking at two examples. The first is Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (the three volumes are The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death’s End). The stakes in the series are huge, as high as can be in fiction – yet I feel that, as the stakes climb from book to book, the tension somewhat drops, and it becomes harder and harder to engage.

To quickly summarise, extra-terrestrials from a planet called Trisolaris are coming to Earth to settle on our planet and get rid of humanity, because their own planet is unstable and on the brink of collapse. The stakes could not be higher. During the first book, the laws of physics themselves are at stake, as the Trisolaran can use technology in a way that baffles the humans, sometimes pushing eminent scientists to suicide. There are personal stakes too, and a couple of characters which we follow closely during the first two books. The story is tense, mysterious, and makes us want to keep on reading.

However, I had trouble engaging with the third volume. It has several time-jumps into the future, and a lot of the previous main characters die of old age. The world stakes remain (fighting the Trisolaran, mastering and creating new technology, discovering more about the universe) but the personal stakes fade.

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For me, the tension also drops – I care a lot less when Earth is finally destroyed, because nothing ties me to the planet. The people I knew died, the society I understood changed. It is gone now, which is vaguely nostalgic, but why should I care? This becomes even more obvious as, in the last couple of chapters, a few centuries fly past, and personal relationships which we were invested in are brutally undone by time.

(As a brief parenthesis, I also have some beef with Death’s End regarding its understanding of gender-roles and what a ‘feminised’ society means or looks like, but we will keep that critical analysis for another day.)

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In comparison, Ted Chiang, in his short story The Lifecycle of Software Objects, explores relatively low stakes. (You can find the short story in the anthology Exhalation.) I would recommend reading any work by Ted Chiang, as he is a brilliant short story writer, but I will focus on this one story for today.

In The Lifecycle of Software Objects, the stakes are small and personal – but not, I would argue, low. New AI pets called the digients have been created. The story follows them from their creation, when there is a fad for cutsey creatures who can learn and talk, all the way to when the servers are being repurposed and their internet world is archaic and dying, leaving their loving owners strapped for cash if they want to export them into the new, more modern servers.

 

The relationship our main characters have with the digients is that of parents with their children.

The story is about what it means to bring sentient beings into this world (be they organic or artificial), what responsibility we owe them, what freedom we have to relinquish to them when they grow up. The focus is mostly on keeping the digients safe, loving them and teaching them. The relationship between the two main human characters, Ana and Derek, is also at stake – if they disagree, then what is lost is their ability to talk to one another and understand the other’s viewpoint. But the world isn’t at risk. The lives of the human guardians aren’t at risk. The digients themselves, although they risk being somewhat isolated and made obsolete, are never directly physically threatened.

Yet the story is touching, tender, and the stakes feel high. We want Ana and Derek to succeed – we want to do right by the digients. There is tension, a movement forward, a pace, until the resolution at the end. We wonder what choices the characters will make, what we might have done in their place, and, most importantly, we care.

To go further, I’d like to argue that for big stakes – worldly, political or moral stakes – to be effective, they need to be tied to deeply personal, emotional stakes.

Ted Chiang is asking important moral questions about education which could seem dry, but with which readers become highly involved because the future of characters they love hangs in the balance. Their lives will change depending on how those moral questions are answered, and thus we care about the answers.

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Similarly, Cixin Liu is at his strongest when the fate of humanity, and the understanding of alien technology, is tied to a couple of people, to the life and death of one lonely woman betrayed by the system, or one scientist struggling to find meaning.

Ted Chiang and Cixin Liu are similar in that they write science-fiction with a strong emphasis on the science. They explore the societal, economical, and technological consequences of the ideas they introduce to the reader. This in-depth exploration is, I believe, what makes the richness of their writing. However, by reading them we can see that there isn’t a correlation between high stakes/world stakes, low stakes/personal stakes. On the contrary, whatever the scope, it is possible to keep readers involved as long as we draw out the raw human emotion buried within the story.

14 May 21