Heroes

Tagged: Theme

Gilgamesh may be the first named hero in what we think of as the Western World. Like him, most heroes in the cultures of the West are passionate, often rebellious, defenders of and bringers of relief to their homelands, and until perhaps Boudicca (floruit 60-61 CE) always male. They often descended from Gods (> Gods and Demons) but are distinct from them, like Hercules; even Prometheus, the paradigm culture hero in the Western tradition, is not a god but a Trickster [for Gilgamesh, Gods, Prometheus and Trickster see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Sf began to produce its own distinctive kind of hero well before the beginning of the twentieth century. As might be expected, sf writers – most of whom expressed interest (sometimes monitory) in the advancement of science – soon found models for heroic action in Scientists (or, perhaps more accurately, creators of Inventions) who often used their genius to save or attempt to save the world, as did Prometheus. From early in its history, the US dime novel (> Dime-Novel SF) featured young protagonists who invented their way out of dire straits in a thousand tales, but then – directly repudiating the Promethean model – often gained worldly success and acclaim, taking on many of the advertised characteristics of the most charismatic US inventor/scientist of the nineteenth century, Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) (> Edisonade for details); well into the twentieth century, heroes on the edisonade model figured large in Genre SF, generally in Space Opera between the World Wars, although the influence of the Edison myth can be detected also in Robert A Heinlein's Competent Man.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that in much sf the figure of the scientist remained far too remote and enigmatic to stand as a hero, and it was only rarely – as in H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895) – that adult sf featured scientists in roles that gave them the opportunity to assume protagonist burdens of heroism. Over against the heroes of the edisonade, sf very frequently featured young heroes who had become entangled with matters of superscience entirely by accident: a certain bewildered astonishment was a constant feature of the role. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers are heroes of this type, as is John Star, hero of Jack Williamson's The Legion of Space (April-September 1934 Astounding; rev 1947). And whether or not their creators deemed them to be inventor/scientist heroes – as C M Kornbluth argued in "The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism" (in The Science Fiction Novel, anth 1959, ed Basil Davenport) – the worldview of E E Smith's heroes and all their kind is that of small children, and their adventures are daydreams which proceed according to the pattern of make-believe games. This pattern, common to almost all action-adventure fiction, stands out particularly clearly in Pulp-magazine sf simply because the scope of the make-believe is so great. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom novels are perhaps the ultimate in literary daydreams, and the enduring attraction of such fantasies is shown by the constant proliferation of their imitators. Edmond Hamilton's Captain Future stories and the Perry Rhodan adventures are examples of more strictly science-fictional variants.

In the 1940s John W Campbell Jr used his influence as editor of Astounding Science-Fiction to urge sf writers to modify the standard pulp hero by putting much greater emphasis on problem-solving aptitude and engineering skill. Archetypes of this new image included the staff of George O Smith's Venus Equilateral (stories October 1942-November 1945 Astounding; fixup 1947), who were forever scribbling equations and designs on the tablecloths in Joe's Bar. It might be argued that this was very limited progress, and that the new image appealed to the worldview of the adolescent in the process of learning, upgrading mental competence at the expense of physical prowess, but really coming no nearer to genuine characterization. Certainly there is a great deal of sf which is attractive to the adolescent – and particularly to the alienated adolescent, bound more closely to a private mental world – and, just as E E Smith's Lensmen relate to their Arisian mentors in the same way that children relate to adults, a similar relationship, but at a later stage, is reflected in Poul Anderson's Flandry series, in which the hero's flamboyant behaviour and contempt for imperial decadence relates very well to the mood of adolescent rebellion. The conscientiously unorthodox Campbell had a particular fondness for scientist-heroes who were determined paradigm-breakers, and this was shared by many of his writers. Even nonscientist heroes are frequently portrayed in magazine sf as diehard rebels against stultifying orthodoxy, and the iconoclast who demonstrates by his delinquency that he is fit for membership in the social elite is an annoying sf Cliché. Although there were few true Antiheroes in sf before, say, the emergence of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius in The Final Programme (August and December 1965, March 1966 New Worlds; 1968) – Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat (in The Stainless Steel Rat [1961] and its sequels) being too lovable a rogue to qualify, though there is a good case to be made that the evolution of E E Smith's Blackie DuQuesne from Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946) to Skylark DuQuesne (June-October 1965 If; 1966) neatly encapsulates the growth of the concept – there was a long pre-existent tradition of heroic bloody-mindedness in magazine sf.

As a more mature approach to characterization began to appear in sf during the 1940s, the heroic stature of its protagonists inevitably began to be compromised. True heroes are implicitly unrealistic characters of more-than-human dimensions, and the pulp Superheroes who had existed on the fringe of sf, like Doc Savage, were largely diverted into the world of the Comics, where Superman became the archetype of a vast legion of caped crusaders. In the sf pulps, too, superhumans became heroes, following a prototype established by A E van Vogt in Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946). The vanVogtian hero is always adrift in a hostile world whose circumstances are beyond his understanding, but he is possessed of awesome, temporarily dormant powers whose ultimate flowering will enable him spectacularly to prevail. This slightly schizoid stereotype became increasingly common, and also more elaborate and extravagant. Later works in this vein frequently feature heroes who exhibit an odd combination of vulnerability and godlikeness; several examples can be found in the work of Roger Zelazny (see also Paranoia). It is, of course, the function of heroes to appease the psychological forces within us that must necessarily be repressed in the day-to-day routine of adult intercourse with the world, and there is really no need to worry – as the psychoanalyst Fredric Wertham (1895-1981) did in The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) – that the fascination of children and sf fans with superheroes might be perverted or fascistic. The utility of social outsiders in heroic roles is also, inevitably, reflected in the increasingly common use of Aliens as heroes, and sometimes Machines (although Robots and sentient Computers pose problems when employed as foci for reader-identification). These trends too began in the 1940s but became more pronounced in subsequent decades. The most extreme cases of "outsider" heroes are perhaps to be found in Cyborg stories which use brains-in-boxes as viewpoint characters.

Despite the processes of sophistication which have reduced many of its protagonists to a more human scale, modern sf has carried forward the trends which were set in the 1940s, albeit in more selfconscious – and often frankly humorous – ways. The noble rebel against oppressive authority remains commonplace, his activities celebrated with awesome sentimentality in such novels as Mike Resnick's Santiago (1986). The oppressed child-become-superhero has also been provided with a striking new archetype in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; exp 1985), although Card's anxiety about the propriety of this genocidal power-fantasy led him to pad out the expanded version with much philosophical debate and to produce sequels in which Ender becomes a kind of saintly redeemer. Comic-book superhero fantasy has moved back into a closer alliance with written fiction, reflected in such projects as George R R Martin's Wild Cards series of multi-authored "mosaic novels" or Braids. It is noticeable that modern comic-book superheroes are very often social outsiders, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles providing a striking example. The market-encouraged overlap between sf and Heroic Fantasy has helped to maintain much older kinds of hero despite acute problems of plausibility. Science-fictional transfigurations of Greek and other hero-myths are surprisingly numerous, most notable among them R A Lafferty's Space Chantey (1968) and Tim Powers's Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1985), and Grail Quests are also featured in such novels as Samuel R Delany's Nova (1968). Antiheroes have been very much in fashion in recent times thanks to the Cyberpunk movement, but the parallel fashionability of Military SF has resulted in a wide spectrum of heroic types which ranges from steadfastly honourable soldiers through mercenaries to determined followers of a Survivalist ethos. Female heroes were almost unknown in sf before 1960, although sweet-natured "heroines" were to be found in abundance, but as more and more female writers have moved into sf this imbalance has been spectacularly redressed; a great deal of contemporary sf has now taken on the burden of appeasing the frustrations of women in much the same way that 1940s sf appeased the frustrations of adolescent boys. Although the path of progress was first mapped by feminist writers like Joanna Russ, creator of the troubled-but-competent Alyx, female heroes are now so numerous in certain roles – notably that of starship pilot – that such assignments no longer seem propagandistic.

Scientists, for the most part, are still out in the cold, rarely afforded even moderate heroic status: an accurate but sad reflection of contemporary social attitudes. [BS/JC]

see also: Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Villains.

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