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MIND MELD: The Most Memorable Anti-Heroes In SF/F

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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:

Q: Who are some of the most memorable anti-heroes in SF/F?
Allen Steele
Allen M. Steele is science fiction writer with sixteen novels and five collections of short fiction to his name; his work has received numerous awards, including two Hugos. His most recent novel is Coyote Destiny, the final volume of the Coyote series.

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.

Lisa Paitz Spindler
Lisa Paitz Spindler is the alter ego of Danger Gal, whose stiletto heels are licensed weapons and who keeps Ninja stars in her bra. Lisa, however, gets through each day on steady infusions of caffeine and science blogs, while constantly trying to beat her Free Rice high score of 45. Occasionally she writes science fiction and designs web sites.

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.

Matthew Delman
Matthew Delman is a blogger, writer, editor of Doctor Fantastique’s Show of Wonders (an online Steampunk zine found at http://www.doctorfantastiques.com), and involved in a whole lot of other projects that he tries to devote as much time as possible to. He’s an avid science fiction and fantasy writer and reader, and beyond dealing He and his wife make their home in Eastern Massachusetts. You can follow Matthew on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mattdelman or find his primary blog, a “practical literary guide” to Steampunk, at http://freetheprincess.blogspot.com. He’s a big fan of Steampunk, in case you couldn’t tell.

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.

Mark Chadbourn
A two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, Mark Chadbourn is the author of eleven novels and one non-fiction book. His latest fantasy sequence, Age of Misrule, is comprised of World’s End, Darkest Hour and Always Forever. A former journalist, he is now a screenwriter for BBC television drama. His other jobs have included running an independent record company, managing rock bands, and working on a production line. He lives in a forest in the English Midlands.

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.

S. Andrew Swann
S. Andrew Swann is the pen name of Steven Swiniarski. He’s married and lives in the Greater Cleveland area, where he has lived all of his adult life. He has a background in mechanical engineering and — besides writing — works as a database manager for one of the largest private child services agencies in the Cleveland area. He has published 18 novels with DAW books over the past 17 years, which include science fiction, fantasy, horror and thrillers. He has recently sold a pair of historical fantasy novels to Spectra; Wolfbreed (Aug 2009) and Wolf’s Cross (July 2010). His latest book is Heretics (Feb 2010), the second volume in the Apotheosis Trilogy. Volume three, Messiah, is scheduled for Feb 2011.

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.

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14 Comments on MIND MELD: The Most Memorable Anti-Heroes In SF/F

  1. Not quite awake yet this morning. But Mack Megaton in Lee Martinez’s “The Automatic Detective” springs to mind.

    “Johannes Cabel the Necromancer” by Johnathan Howard is inventive lead character, with his own twisted charms.

    Butch, gay swordsman, Ringil from Richard K. Morgan’s “The Steel Remains” is the perfect anti-hero, and this book became a instant personal favorite of mine in contemporary fantasty.

    Perry Dawsey in Scot Sigler’s “Infected/Contagious” duology is great tough guy anti-hero.

    “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril” by Paul Malmont features the fictionalized geek squad of real life pulp writers Walter Gibson, Lester Dent and the annoying L. Ron Hubbard.

    George Davies in “The Good and Happy Child” by Justin Evans, is a fantastic anti-hero in one of the best horror novels from the past few years.

     

  2. Harlequin, Elric and Severian, mentioned above, are interesting choices, although they weren’t characters whom I immediately thought of.  My three choices would probably be Gollum, The Mule (Foundation series), and Darth Vader.

  3. Gerald Tarrant in the True Night Falls trilogy by CS Friedman is perhaps the best anti-hero I’ve ever read.

  4. Glad to see that Takeshi Kovacs got a mention – he tops my list. 

  5. Thanks, Andrew. I wish I’d remembered Steerpike.

  6. If SF TV shows can be included I’d nominate Kerr Avon from “Blake’s 7”.

  7. Curmudgeon // October 20, 2010 at 11:58 am //

    Robinette Broadhead from Pohl’s Gateway.

     

     

  8. Interesting list.  No shout-out to Thomas Covenant, though?

  9. Inquisitor Andrej Koscuisko from the excellent Jurisdiction series of space opera novels by Susan Matthews

  10. Some of my more recent favorite anti-heroes:

    Stark from Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

    Joe Pitt from Already Dead by Charlie Huston

    Both of these guys just go about kicking ass and asking questions later. Neither should be looked up to, but they usually get the job done.

    And I can’t believe no one mentioned Jamie Lannister.  He may have started off as a villain in A Song of Ice and Fire, but as the series has progressed he has turned into quite a strong anti-hero. Who knows where his character will go from here, but as of this moment he is one of favorites.

  11. I feel like I’ve seen this question recently elswhere; the deja vu is pretty intense. 

    Severian is pretty much my favorite anti-hero.  Kane and Locke Lamora are also fun choices.  Elric is also high on the list, but I think of him more as a noble villain. I would add Woland from The Master and Margarita, although perhaps he crosses the line.  And maybe Kalix from The Lonely Werewolf Girl?  Wizard from Wizard of the Pigeons is on the edge too, more as a reluctant hero I suppose.

  12. I love the Harlan Ellison characters mentioned. They are all great anti-heros. Its great how interesting those characters became given that they all appear in relatively short stories.

    When I think of anti-heros, I always think of Elric, obviously. But another good anti-hero is Case from Neuromancer by William Gibson.

     

  13. Well, to properly apply the term, none of the above are truly ‘anit-heroes’ – though it could be argued of Frodo.

    I think it important to maintain the distinction between what a true anti-hero is (e.g., Arthur Dent, Charlie Brown) and what the Byronic hero is (e.g., Wolverine, The Punisher, many of those cited above).

    An anti-hero, while having a heart of gold and/or a heroic spirit, is essentially the direct opposite of the heroic figure – a nerd if you will. While he or she may mean well and mean to do ‘right’ whatever that may mean, the anti-hero is typically physically incapable of doing so and is only able to ‘save the day/moment’ through coincidence and luck.

    On the other hand, the Byronic hero is amoral, capable of all that the archetypal hero is (except for self-sacrifice), yet often choosing not to emulate one or to utilize his or her skills/capabilities on behalf of anyone other than self. While there may be certain instances wherein such characters do perform on behalf of others or make decisions that effect the greater good, they are essentially one-of-a-kind moments that usually are still conducted with ulterior motiviation of personal betterment regardless of all else.

    I think the spectrum of heroic characters and attributes is large enough to retain both definitions and that lumping them together shortchanges all of us.

  14. Ben Reich in THE DEMOLISHED MAN.

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