[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Science fiction and fantasy is full of the archetypal hero, the good guy/gal who, even with flaws, tries to do the right thing for the right reason. But there have been numerous antiheroes as protagonists, or antagonists, in many SF/F stories. We asked our panelists the following question:
Having recently spent a weekend with Harlan Ellison at the MadCon science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin, his work comes immediately to mind when I think about anti-heroes in science fiction and fantasy. Harlan’s stories are filled with characters who don’t fit the archetypes of most popular fiction; they’re often flawed individuals who become heroes despite themselves. Which is what make these people memorable; you don’t forget them five minutes after finishing the story.
The Harlequin of “`Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Ticktockman'” is one such character. A renegade clown in a brutally regimented society where punctuality has become the essence of conformity, he’s the man who not only refuses fit in, but does his best to throw jelly beans (literally) into the well-oiled cogs of the social treadmill. But when he’s finally apprehended by the authorities and has to face his nemesis, the Ticktockman, the Harlequin turns out to be an average individual whose only crime is a habit of always being late … but who has risen above himself to become a hero.
Another such character is Warren Glazer Griffin, the middle-aged accountant of “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer”. In the last instant before an untimely death, Griffin finds himself transported to a fantasy world where, reincarnated into another man’s body, he finds himself having to save a beautiful woman from a ferocious dragon. it’s a chance at redemption for a life not-well-spent, and the outcome of this short parable includes one of Harlan’s finest lines: “A man may truly live in his dreams, his noblest dreams, but only, only if he is worthy of those dreams.”
But the best is probably Vic, the narrator of “A Boy and His Dog.” Make no mistake about it: the only noble individual of this novella is Blood, Vic’s telepathic dog. Vic himself is a piece of work, a vicious teenager who has no qualms about shooting someone in the back, raping a girl at gunpoint, or killing her father in front of her. But perhaps this is to be expected; he grew up in a nightmarish world that’s come apart in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Indeed, in many ways, he’s better than the people who live in cloistered Downunders beneath his dying city. And in the end, when he’s forced to make a bitter choice, Vic comes down on the right side of things.
As much as I like the movie that was made from this story — Harlan wrote himself wrote the screenplay — the original novella is much better. In fact, go find all these stories and read them if you haven’t already (or re-read them if you have). No one creates a character quite the same way as Harlan Ellison does.
One of my favorite anti-heroes is Crowley from Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. A fallen angel who can utter “I can’t see what’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil, anyway.” with a straight face is the very definition of an anti-hero. Plus, he created Welsh-language television. In TV, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace is exceptionally memorable even if she was rehabilitated into a more traditional hero by the end of Battlestar Galactica. However, probably the most memorable anti-hero in popular culture has to be smuggler Han Solo, who also treads a straighter path by the end of the first Star Wars trilogy. Other personally memorable anti-heroes include Ann Rice’s Lestat de Lioncourt, Billy/Dr. Horrible from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Jenny Casey from Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered trilogy, Takeshi Kovacs from Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
Roland Deschain, the anti-hero of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, is a man driven by single-minded ambition. “Get to the Tower” is his watchword; whatever happens, he has to get to the Tower. Even to the extent of sacrificing those around him, such as the boy Jake in The Gunslinger, Roland will not break from the path that he has traveled dozens — possibly hundreds — of times before this cycle. Until slowly, ever so slowly, he realizes he might be able to break the repeating series of events.
Raistlin Majere of the Dragonlance novels is the quintessential tortured anti-hero. First he defeats the goddess Takhisis and takes her dark throne and power, the end of a relentless push for all the power in the universe. Raistlin then proceeds to destroy the whole of creation with his dread magic …. before putting everything back together again in a moment of regret after his twin brother Caramon convinces him of the wrongness of his path. Raistlin gives his life to prevent the goddess Takhisis from entering the world of Krynn through the Portal that Raistlin himself opened.
Nightfall is a thief, magically-gifted charlatan, and general criminal that is captured in the opening pages of The Legend of Nightfall. He then, through the course of the novel, protects a naive princeling from all manner of dangers until eventually a friendship forms despite the dread magic that bonds Nightfall to his prince. They end up working together to overthrow the evil wizard behind a plan to assassinate the king, and Nightfall eventually becomes a trusted advisor to the prince.
Doctor Henry Jekyll and Mister Edward Hyde are two interesting sides of the same demented coin. Jekyl is the heroic doctor trying to figure out how to separate the evil side of humanity from within ourselves, while Hyde is that evil made manifest. Despite all the good works Jekyll proceeds to do, he realizes that he can never escape Hyde as the transformations become more and more frequent. Eventually, this lack of acceptance between the good and evil halves of the same man leads to the death of both.
Captain Nemo, the villain-hero of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, is simultaneously a rebel, a mad scientist, and a patriot. He wishes destruction upon the British Empire that so subjugated his native India, and is willing to strike at any military vessel he can in order to make that happen. He does not, however, destroy civilian ships with the Nautilus. This important distinction between civilian and military is what makes Nemo a hero rather than a pure villain.
John Taylor has a gift for finding things in the Nightside, that seamy part of London where it’s always 3 am. Sometimes those things don’t want to be found, but being the son of the demon Lilith can have its perks when it comes to special abilities. John’s reputation for ruthlessness precedes him, and there are days that only using his name will get any sort of information he wants. John also spent a good deal of his life trying to find a way to stop dear old mother from destroying the world to remake it in her image.
Harry Dresden is Chicago’s only wizard. In the chronicles of The Dresden Files, this places him up against rogue wizards, demons, werewolves, vampires, and all manner of crooked beasties who are set on making life miserable for the mortal inhabitants of the Chicago Metropolitan area. With his trademark wit, dead sorceror for a partner, and sometimes lack of mercy against his enemies, Harry is precisely the kind of hero you want on your side. Just don’t expect him to fix your fridge. Modern appliances tend to fritz out around him.
Like most writers, I’m inherently rebellious (indeed, kicking against the accepted structures of society and the often sclerotic thought processes that accompany them may be one of the main functions of writing). For me, the most interesting and memorable characters, particularly in the imaginative genres, have been the outsider, the Machiavellian schemer. Give me Steerpike over Frodo any day. But the one anti-hero who has always stayed with me from childhood, has been Number Six, The Prisoner. As played by Patrick McGoohan on TV, he is a man filled with unfocused rage. He appears to loathe everything, and always appears to be on the point of exploding a blood vessel or two in his quietly seething hatred of the Village, Number Two and the world in general (which is what the Village represents). I saw the series in the UK on one of its many reruns, long after it had sixties viewers apoplectic about its oblique, troubling resolution, which went so against the TV norms of the time.
The Prisoner is the most purely allegorical series ever shown, and Number Six is the everyman (indeed, also the name of McGoohan’s production company), raging against politics, education, healthcare, business, espionage, warfare and just about every other way that society supports an unchanging elite and keeps the hard-working man and woman trapped in endless spirals of meaninglessness. In the end, he’s prepared to bring everything crashing down around his ears rather than succumb to another moment of oppression – even if that means the innocent get crushed along with the guilty.
On another reading, Number Six rails against life itself. He dies in the opening credits – gassed by the death symbol of the undertakers – and spends the rest of the series in purgatory, in the Village, trying to come to terms with his life, and eventually, in the final two episodes, undergoing the full-life review and moving on to a place that looks suspiciously like the hell of his regular life.
Which leads nicely in to my other favourite anti-hero, Harry Angel from William Hjortsberg’s supernatural noir, Falling Angel, which was filmed by Alan Parker as Angel Heart. Angel is a gone-to-seed PI in fifties New York hired to hunt down a missing jazz musician, Johnny Favorite, who allegedly signed away his soul. In the movie, Favorite’s daughter, Epiphany Proudfoot, played by Lisa Bonet, says, “There’s nothing like a badass to make a girl’s heart beat faster”, which nicely sums up the enduring appeal of the anti-hero: an air of danger, of unpredictability, someone you would love to have a beer with, but who could just as easily slip a knife in your back. Falling Angel reveals all Harry’s many flaws, but also shows his laconic charm and dogged, unflinching attention to the case he’s on – even if he torments a few people along the way.
Patrick Bateman, Elric, Jerry Cornelius (in fact all of Moorcock’s heroes) Spike, Conan, Jack Torrance, they all make the heart beat faster. And I think in this day and age we need them more than ever.
Here are three of the most memorable anti-heroes in written SF/F, at least the three that come most readily to my mind when the question comes up.
First is Slippery Jim DiGriz of the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison. He is the classic example of the lovable rogue, a criminal who is more or less tricked into working for the good guys. Con-man, interplanetary criminal, smooth-talking and charming, and aside from drawing the line at killing people, he’s pretty much without a moral compass at all. In fact, in one of the early books, he goes into a long expository explanation of how robbing a bank is actually a perfectly fine thing to do.
Second we have Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock. If you want memorable, this guy is memorable. In fact, in the whole cannon of SF/F literature, Elric is one of the few characters where the word “unique” is an accurate description. A physical weakling, an albino who needs to take drugs to maintain his strength, emperor of a dying civilization; Elric is not just an anti-hero, he is pretty much the antithesis of any other typical sword and sorcery character. In any other fantasy series, Elric would be the antagonist (and he’d be a bitching one.) He also carries around possibly one of the nastier artifacts created in fantasy fiction.
Lastly, we have Severian from the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. The world he inhabits is strange and fascinating, and he is a rather dark guide. In a genre where there are sympathetic assassins galore, here we have a guy who tortures people as a vocation, and who’s point of disgrace is when he allows one of his victims to kill themselves. That’s kind of hard-core. Also carries a kick-ass sword.