I love internal conflict.
Is there a God? Should I save my friends or pursue the ways of the Force? Are pirates really the way to go, or am I really a member of the ninja clan?
Internal conflict drives many literary novels. Herman Hesse’s Siddharta is an exploration of spiritual identity; Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a quest for meaning. Done well, it can move a reader to tears.
But it’s very difficult to do in genre fiction. The market expects a minimum dose of external conflict, something outside the characters’ heads to invest in. You really can’t write the SF Siddharta. But there are other ways to play.
Dune does it well. Paul Muad’Dib can see the future, and it leads to a bloodbath that he wishes to avoid. Can he avoid the path of the bloody messiah? Can he find the “golden path” of the later novels, the one way to end the curse of prescience? Paul’s internal conflict comes at a nexus of religion and politics, which combined create “the whirlwind.”
Yet Dune isn’t navel-gazing drama. It’s sandworms, and hard people living on a hard planet, and space battles, and awesome creatures and awesome knife-fights. (No, really, they are incredibly terrific knife-fights.) Dune doles out interstellar conflict in equal servings with its spiritual ponderings.
But let’s say, like me, you don’t really care for conflict driven largely by violence. What else is there to offer?
One novel I return to frequently is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. It follows a Catholic order through a thousand years as it saves the books from pre-holocaust society, doling out knowledge as civilization re-establishes itself in the ruins. The war, the action, all takes place offstage. The protagonists, all monks, struggle with the meanings of the surviving books, attempting to salvage damaged tomes, and arguing over the merits of saving the knowledge of a civilization that ate its own tail. The quest for meaning is balanced with the power struggles the monks become involved in.
Navel-gazing vs. mindless heroics. It’s a false dichotomy.