Memorable SF Characters of the Essential Authors
Mr Wizard writes:
“So much of science fiction is soulless from a human view. And a lot of the presumptions of even major works of science fiction are laughable. There is a lot of wow in science fiction, but they rarely reach me, rarely are remotely capable achieving catharsis. Usually I can remember nothing of any of the characters.”
My comment: That SF is emotionally flat is a very common criticism of science fiction, and, unfortunately, an often merited one. Detective stories, particularly ones that concentrate on the intellectual process or police procedure of solving the crime, suffer a similar criticism.
But the sheer forgettability (not a word, but it should be) of most SF characters, particularly of early SF, is legendary. This is odd, because any competent editor will tell you that characters drive the story.
On the other hand, writers as different from each other as H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton point out the advantage of having a bland ‘everyman’ or ‘anyman’ as the hero of a wonder tale: the reader can place himself in the shoes of an everyman more easily than in some quirky or unique hero, and when the backdrop and props and plot are futuristic or fabulous and filled with spectacle and dazzle, a hero who pulls attention to himself is a distraction.
If the hero is as ordinary as Jack, the reader is aghast at how extraordinary is the giant, whether a titan from a fantasy tale, or a giant armored battle-station from a space opera.
I propose, however, a short survey of all science fiction from its origins to the present day, and an examination of how memorable the characters are, and how that has changed.
This being too great a task for one article, let me use a slight of hand instead, and only consider the characters depicted in the list I created for the 50 essential authors of science fiction. Now, this procedure is a little unfair, because it will not list memorable characters appearing in non-essential books, which perhaps include some of the most memorable characters ever. So keep that limitation in mind as we proceed.
Looking over my list of 50 essential authors to read to be SF fans, I notice a peculiar dearth of memorable characters. Some of these tales, I cannot even bring the names of the protagonists to mind.
Let me use a completely subjective standard of what is memorable, namely, do I think with my skills as a writer, or those of any other obscure midlist writer of ordinary skill, could portray the particular nuances of speech and mannerism which the character shows, and have him be recognized by the reader?
Could I identify two or more dreams or main motivations pulling the character in opposite directions? This last is the crucial question. One-dimensional characters have no motivation; two-dimensional characters have a simple motivation; three-dimensional characters, as in life, have conflicts of motivation.
There is a second thing that makes characters memorable: those with no particular details given about their lives are memorable if they are archetypes. Those with particular details are memorable if the details are organic to the character, not merely arbitrary quirks. Do I know the character well enough to anticipate his taste in women, food, sports, music, politics?
Of early science fiction, characterization was almost nonexistent.
Dr. Victor Van Frankenstein. He is torn between his normal life, his fiancée, and his ambition to play God, and the evils that come when he fathers a monster but does not love it, or raise it. The conflict in the character is the central fact of the character, and he is memorable enough to have created any entire trope of his own, if not a genre. All Mad Scientists and Mad Inventors are stepchildren of Dr Frankenstein.
Captain Nemo and Robur the Conqueror. These are the archetypal mad inventors of science fiction, but having slightly more personality than their many epigones. Unlike Frankenstein, it is pride which pushes these men of genius beyond the pale.
Impey Barbacane. A halt-at-nothing Yankee. The description of the gunnery club members, maimed and dismembered from their many dangerous experiments with gunpowder, fixed this archetype in mind. Had he been a bad guy, he would have been a mad inventor.
Of H.G. Wells characters, I am afraid the only ones I find memorable are the Martians, the Selenites, or Weena the Eloi and Morlocks. But even they are memorable only as static archetypes: the Martian is the archetypal “superior being” of Victorian Darwinism. As modern men were thought of as being more refined and intelligent yet weaker than the noble savages of the Cave-Man, the Martians are creatures of immense hands and brains, the evolutionary advantages of mankind extrapolated to absurdity, occupying artificial bodies of metal, fighting machines and handling machines.
Likewise, the Selenites are buglike socialists. The Eloi are weak and useless aristocrats extrapolated to absurdity, and the Morlocks brutal workingmen. The Wells characters do not lodge in the mind like a Charles Dickens’ character. The Time Traveler does not even have a name.
Of the characters from A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay, the protagonist Maskull is an everyman with no distinguishing features aside from his luck, his strength, and his audacity. The other characters are memorable for their allegorical or symbolic value, and I would say extravagantly or outrageously memorable: I have never read a character of more divine and sublime self-sacrifice and grace than Joiwind, or more noble than Panawe, or more outrageously sensual and crass than Oceaxe, cruller than Crimtyphon, or more austere than Spadevil, and so on. But, again, while sharply vivid, these are archetypes. Oddly enough, they are archetypes apparently from Lindsay’s personal Gnostic mythos, so they are memorable to a degree because they are odd.
The books by Olaf Stabledon, LAST AND FIRST MEN or STARMAKER cannot be rated on their characters, simply because they have none. These are books of future history where whole eons are brushed past in a paragraph, so we are lucky if the races of man are memorable enough to be given personalities. I would, myself, say that they are: I can recall easily to mind the difference between the athletic biotechnicians of the Third Men, the Great Brains of the Fourth Men, the sane supremacy of the Fifth Men, the mystical Seventh Men and their wings, the pedestrian Eighth Men.
The dystopian novels of early British SF, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell and A BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley, don’t have any characters worth mentioning. Both John Savage and Winston Smith are everyman figures. Savage, being from a backward part of the globe, represents something more akin to the modern reader’s viewpoint. The everyman is on stage to be awed or appalled by the shock of these dark futures.
Let us move onto the pulp era: we strike a new archetype here. Instead of merely mad scientists or awed or appalled everyman figures, the pulps held heroes. Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith introduced us to clean-limbed fighting men of Virginia, or Gray Lensmen who were the peak and perfection of human prowess, and for superhumans somewhat nondescript.
Ironically, the most memorable SF character who stands out from the pulp era, to me, is Marc C “Blackie” DuQuesne, the arch-villain of the Skylark series, because his mental capabilities were equal to the goodguy superscientist, or fractionally inferior, but he was not a mad scientist, merely whose mind was as vast, cool and unsympathetic as that of the Martians of Wells.
E.E. Smith, however, in his Lensman series, pulled off a feat of characterization not to be equaled until Larry Niven, introducing not one but three utterly alien races, each with its own psychology and personality type, who lived up to the Campbellian challenge of showing readers an alien who thought as well as a man but not like a man: by which I mean Nedrick of Palain VII, Trigonsee of Rigel, and Worsel of Valentia. By human standards, these beings are pathologically cowardly, or bovine in their placidity, or manic-depressive in their battle-frenzy. The cleverness of the conceit here is that humans likewise, with our moral corruption and penchant for emotionalism, seem to these beings as mad as they seem to us.
I can list only two aliens from this early period of science fiction which strike me as comparably memorable: Tweel from ‘A Martian Odyssey’ by Stanley G. Weinbaum and The Mother from ‘The Moon Era’ by Jack Williamson. But, even so, I give the laurels to E.E. Smith, because his aliens have recognizable psychologies with understandable limitations. Tweel is merely odd.
As for characters from H.P. Lovecraft, I can barely recall a name aside from that of Randolf Carter, whereas his many aliens both extraterrestrial and ultradimensional — who may have indeed been gods or devils — I could rattle off like a fanboy, which, indeed I am.
One factor which makes the human characters not memorable in many of these SF works is that the aliens are so memorable. The author wants to emphasize the strangeness of the extraterrestrial in the background, and this means the human in the foreground should be the opposite of strange. When Klatuu lands in a flying saucer, he does not hide among circus freaks, costumed vigilantes or satanists escaped from a mental institution. In order for the story to work, it must be a typical suburban household he enters.
Another factor which tends toward the blandness of SF heroes, come from the tradition of ‘golden age’ SF under the editor John W. Campbell Jr., under the Big Three authors of Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt. Namely, that these men quite conscientiously set out to make a certain type of approach to life, a certain type of man, appealing to the audience. They were glorifying the technically competent man, the engineer, the scientist.
In the same way that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle determined that his Great Detective Sherlock Holmes would be a man of ascetic intellectualism, as precise and unemotional as a theorem of Pythagoras, Campbell and the Big Three presented a view of man as a creature of reason, almost as a Houyhnhnm, who solves his problems with Sherlockian detachment.
And such men tend not to be quirky or self-aggrandizing. The most we can expect from them is a wry sense of humor.
Let me contrast this Golden Age archetype with John Carter, steely gray-eyed clean-limbed fighting man of Virginia and Warlord of Barsoom. Carter describes himself in the opening chapter in this way:
“I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later. My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes. However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.
[...] whether I thought or acted first I do not know, but within an instant from the moment the scene broke upon my view I had whipped out my revolvers and was charging down upon the entire army of warriors, shooting rapidly, and whooping at the top of my lungs.”
In other words, John Carter, coming suddenly by moonlight upon an entire armed camp of some five hundred ferocious Apache braves, instead of retreating or thinking of retreat, pulls a ‘Rooster Cogburn’ with guns in both fists and reins in teeth, and leads a one-man cavalry charge. Without, so he testifies, ‘recourse to tiresome mental processes.’
John Carter is fundamentally a man of passion rather than a man of intellect. In one scene in A PRINCESS OF MARS, he deserts his post, and cuts down four guardsmen in the armed forces in which he himself has taken service. He voices only a momentary regret: “They were brave men and noble fighters, and it grieved me that I had been forced to kill them, but I would have willingly depopulated all Barsoom could I have reached the side of my Dejah Thoris in no other way.” Lucky he was armed with a longsword rather than the Death Star. Important safety tip: do not get between John Carter of Virginia and the incomparable Deja Thoris of Helium.
No character in any tale by Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt, to the best I can recollect, kills a single mook, either in open combat or ambuscade, while driven by unconquerable masculine passion for their true love.
Heinlein’s protagonists tend all to be the single archetypal Heinlein character: the eager young boy who grows into a wry but all-competent jack-of-all-trades and eventually into a wry and crusty old man, usually marrying a lusty jill-of-all-trades nudist redhead somewhere along the way. Asimov’s protagonists are much the same, but with less wryness and no redhead. Van Vogt’s protagonists are much the same, but with no wryness at all, sometimes with amnesia, and he evolves into a superhuman rather than a crusty old man.
We can remember the personality-free personalities of Asimov’s Robots, and the strangely un-Campbellian altruism and nobility of A.E. van Vogt’s superhumans, Jommy Cross the Slan or Walter S. Delany the Immortal, and I think a number of van Vogt’s monsters are memorable, the Coeurl, the Ezwal and the Rull.
And yet the blandness, the lack of any distinguishing personality characteristics, of most of these writers is almost astonishing. Perhaps the only memorable character in the entire canon of Asimov stories is Bayta Darell; perhaps the only memorable character in Heinlein is Podkayne of Mars.
Why should this be? The uncomfortably non-unisex fact of the matter is that in order to portray a female character, the writer must make her non-generic, such as Bayta who pities the Mule, or Podkayne who dreams of being a star-captain, and dies (or is severely wounded) while going back to save a pet.
(Feminists may wish to make women as bland and interchangeable and replaceable as males, but, alas, nature and evolution are against them. The default assumption is that males fight and female love, and the nature of reality is such that life and love is automatically more interesting than death and bloodshed. The female character, if she is feminine at all, automatically has an additional dimension and a depth of character males do not naturally display.)
If I may let slip a professional secret: when I had to portray A.E. van Vogt’s amnesiac superhuman Gilbert Gosseyn in my own NULL-A CONTINUUM, I had to deduce something about his values and virtues, his preferences and personality on stage. Aside from being a trained Null-A, and espousing the values of that philosophy, what was their to him?
I took the hint dropped in chapter one of WORLD OF NULL-A which establishes that Gosseyn, before coming to the City of the Machine for the great games, had implanted the false memory of being a fruit farmer, and so I decided (or deduced) that Gosseyn must share a farmer’s love of the soil, steady work and hard, and have a trace of a rural man’s mistrust of big city folk and their ways.
But he has as little internal conflict over clashing goals as that other perfectly sane and rational science fiction superscientist, John Galt. There is a fine line between an archetypal character and a one-dimensional one. It was much easier to come up with a personality for Patricia Hardie or Enro the Red, since I could use personality types van Vogt had established in his other works.
But this is a roundabout way of admitted that, much as I admire the man’s work, the superhumans of Van Vogt were simply not fully three-dimensional characters. Snatch up Captain Maltby of the Mixed Men and throw him into the situation of Jommy Cross, lost in Centropolis and hunted by the secret police; or snatch up Jommy Cross the Slan and place him in charge of the Weapon’s Shops of Imperial Isher — would either character act or talk any differently than the one he is replacing?
In the Silver Age, at last, we start getting some characters who are at least two-dimensional or moreso. Nicholas van Rijn from Poul Anderson, Gully Foyle (“I kill you filthy, Vorga!”) from Alfred Bester do not fit into any easy stereotype, and do not fade quickly from the memory.
I have a personal fondness for the characters of Keith Laumer, but I must admit they are, for the most part, pastiches of hard boiled detectives. The comedic super-diplomat Retief is memorable merely for the humor of his yarns.
Then we suddenly run into a rich stratum of characters who are fully developed with fully realized personalities: I will mention Sam from Zelazny’s LORD OF LIGHT, or the complex and bitter Corwin of Amber, or the more complex and more bitter Elric of Melnibone, or Jim Nightshade and William Halloway from Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, but I will give laurels to Glenly Ai, the Mobile of the Ekumen on Gethen, or to Therem Harth rem ir Estraven from LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Ursula K LeGuin was simply better at portraying human complexity in characters than any of her peers.
At about this same time, Cordwainer Smith burst on the science fiction scene, making a remarkable impact for a relatively small number of short stories, and, oddly enough, his protagonists were not heroes in the classical sense, but something much more rare and precious: human beings. No matter how odd their outward forms, scanners or underpeople, they had human souls. It is no coincidence that Smith sold his work outside of the circle of John W Campbell Jr.
At the same time, aliens started getting more complex portrayals: let me mention C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur as an example. The Kzin and the Puppeteers of Larry Niven’s Known Space stories parallel the warlike nature of the Valentians and the cowardice of the Palainians as seen in the Lensmen series.
In cyberpunk stories we then come across a stratum of characters so vivid and fully realized that some of them droop over into the territory of anti-heroes, which unfortunately makes them a bit un-memorable again. It may just be my advancing age, but I cannot recall the names of any characters penned by William Gibson or Bruce Sterling. Neal Stephenson rather amusingly named his hero protagonist Hiro Protagonist, and made him a pizza-delivery samurai.
At about this same time, complexity and moral ambiguity make a terrific impact on the characters in that brother genre of science fiction, superhero comics: Alan Moore’s THE WATCHMAN was a graphic novel in the true sense of the word, a novel as complex and rich as anything on the printed page, but told by means of illustrated panels.
Of all the authors listed as ‘essential’ I must award the most fully realized characters, the most realistic, human, and at the same time strange in the way only humans can be, to Gene Wolfe. No one has ever displayed a more masterful command of character’s voice. No character is simple, and none easily forgotten.
I will mention only a few: Severian the Torturer, who is exiled for the crime of pity, and haunted by a stolen relict from a higher universe; and Horn, who seeks across a vampire-infest world for a man who may or may not be himself, hating his own son yet loving his son’s unnatural impersonator; Patera Silk, perhaps the only convincing portrait of an extraordinarily good man I have ever write in any genre; and a convincing portrait of the extraordinarily unrepentant Bax Dun, the sorcerer in the empty house in a small town. Like the house itself, he is not what he seems, and is bigger on the inside than out.
As of the modern day, I would say the science fiction has shed its need for simplistic and un-memorable protagonists. Science fiction is the mainstream.