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Greatest Sci-Fi Antagonists

by Matt Cates 6 years ago in literature / list / science fiction
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Some of the greatest sci-fi antagonists are born from the readers' obsession with villains.

Why are nice readers attracted to evil literary characters? Yes, I’m talking to you! But I’m also guilty, and I have finally reached a point where I can speak about this openly. There’s no denying it—we all crave villains. A good author better know about this phenomenon, for the merits of their protagonists are measured against the strengths of their opponents. It’s no fun reading about a hero fighting a 90-pound pushover! So have no fear, faithful reader, for we’ve assembled a list of sci-fi’s most fiendish fiends. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villa—oh, okay, sorry! I don’t want to get busted for plagiarizing Obi-Wan Kenobi. These guys are the worst of the worst.

But hold up! Before we proceed, let me tack a SPOILER ALERT onto this list. A few of these antagonists wait until late in their respective novels to reveal their slimy true natures, and we don’t want to ruin a classic for you! That’s one evil deed no one should condone…

Mice don’t usually come across as the archetypal bad guys, but you’d be surprised how wily they are—especially after reading Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which discloses the dirty details of these wicked little beasts. In fact these ultra-smart, other-dimensional beings have been doing secret (and perhaps unethical) experiments on Mankind for centuries. And why not? They own planet Earth (or they did before its destruction), so they feel entitled to do as they please with us lesser species. But one thing keeps getting in their way—the pesky question of the meaning of life. So to find the answer, they build a super computer which mulls the problem over for a few million years before spouting out an answer none of them understand. Annoyed to no end, the greedy mice build yet another super computer and anxiously await the question which prompts the true answer to the meaning of life—but only so they can do a show and make money off the news!

Several degrees further down the creepy scale than pan-dimensional mice, Doctor Moreau has lurked as an ethereal legend among the darkened halls of literary heavies. A mad genius (aren’t they all?) living on a remote tropical island, Moreau’s nightmarish genetic experiments on animal species would cause PETA to have an instant collective stroke. As a vivisectionist, Moreau is obsessed with creating a new hybrid species of perfect creatures—a concept so shocking he’d been drummed out of his home country for it. But now, unseen by the judging eyes of humans, he’s able to work his torturous magic in relative peace… until a shipwreck introduces unwelcome visitor Prendick to his island. Prendick encounters the half-human, half-animal "Beast Folk," which include an Ape-Man, Dog-Man, Half-Finished Puma-Woman, and the rebellious Leopard-Man, who refuses to abide by the Law. Instead, he frequently reverts to his animal nature. Moreau’s punishment for such transgressions is severe. Since 1896 when the novel was released upon an unsuspecting audience, Doctor Moreau has served as a character template for deranged scientists conducting terrifying underground experiments with the lofty goal of "improving society." This piece is definitely worth another read!

Seriously, who doesn’t fondly remember Mitth'raw'nuruodo from Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars: Heir to the Empire Expanded Universe book trilogy? Well, maybe you know him better as Grand Admiral Thrawn? Okay, now you remember! That deep blue skin, those ruby red eyes… And the white Imperial uniform! Yes, Thrawn cut quite a dramatic image, but even more appealing was his tactical genius and steely, analytical mind. Thrawn wasn’t the type to lose his calm and force-choke a guy during a staff meeting. On the contrary, his character has endured because of its realism; he actually behaves the way one would think a military commanding officer should—he’s competent, patient, well-read, and deviously brilliant. He’s also open to the ideas of his subordinates, and he doesn’t allow ego to interfere with getting the job done. In this regard, he’s painted in contrast to other Imperial leaders. In other words, he's actually very good at his job!

Fans of the animated Star Wars: Rebels were recently excited to learn (at the London Star Wars Celebration event) that Thrawn’s character is being brought to the show. Now’s the time to catch up on his introduction to the Star Wars universe. Technically these novels are no longer considered "canon" by Disney, but they were clearly influential enough to spawn a villain worthy of reintroduction!

The planetary Baron of Giedi Prime has had an intriguing life span. Beginning as the central antagonist of Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking novel, Dune, the chubby fear-mongering creature went on to possess one of his ancestors (Children of Dune). He later became resurrected as a ‘ghola’ thousands of years later (Hunters of Dune). His early life, too, was chronicled in-depth (Prelude to Dune). But what is it about this ginger-haired, spice-peddling big boy that captivates us so? Perhaps it is his entourage of doctors or his drug-enhanced ‘Mentat’ councilor? Or is it his tabloid-worthy sexual addiction to younger men? Most likely it’s Vladimir’s cold-blooded capacity for devising twisted galactic plots to destroy the royal houses of his enemies! For like the stellar feudal lord he is, Harkonnen rests uneasily in a spider’s web of convoluted conspiracies—behind many of which he is personally pulling the strings, while the rest he is keeping wary tabs on.

Arthur C. Clarke’s alien Overlords didn’t come to understand you—they came to rule you. But their leader (and ours, too!), Karellen—who basically portrays himself as a stern father looking down upon a world of hapless babies—is at least patient enough to take the time and explain his rationales to us. We’re unable to handle our own affairs; therefore, the Overlords came to help us (they did stop the Cold War, after all!). We cannot defend ourselves against the cosmic Powers That Be, but the Overlords can. Everybody just needs to relax and let Karellen have the wheel… since he’s taking it anyhow, as he states to the head of the United Nations. But while his big-picture motives may sound paternal, the resulting kidnapping of Earth’s children rubs many parents the wrong way. The kids have been imbued with a psychic power, he explains, and through them, the Overlords can bridge the gap between themselves and their own ruler, the enigmatic Overmind. Grieving parents begin to lose their minds. Mass suicides ensue and the demonic Overlords finally reveal their true appearance as hooved, horned, leather-winged monsters. Didn’t see that one coming!

Is poor little Alex DeLarge really a villain? Or only a misunderstood product of his environment—a troubled youth who should be "cured" of his madness? After all, his antisocial behavior is directly attributed to society itself… is it not? Such are the questions posed by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, a novel so unsettling it was made into a Stanley Kubrick film, which was subsequently banned in Great Britain for decades. Alex likes to dress up; he puts on his outfit and turns into the leader of a small gang, which goes out late each night to get buzzed on mind-altering chemicals, rough up a few hobos, then rob and rape their way through the gutted remains of their township. Afterwards, in the wee hours of the morning, Alex always returns home to his Mom and Dad’s (with a pocketful of stolen cash and goods) to get some rest in preparation for the coming evening. But when his friends set him up for arrest, Alex convinces the prison priest to put him in for a new government "reform" procedure. Transferred out of jail, Alex counts his blessings and hopes for a quick release from the medical center to which he is entrusted. But instead he soon learns his behavior modification treatment is working all too well—turning him into a pure pacifist unable to withstand even an insult from a stranger. In this weakened state, Alex encounters all the persons to whom he’d done harm in his past.

They say the best-written antagonists do not consider themselves the "bad guy." That’s certainly the case of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (and, interestingly enough, another book made into a movie by Stanley Kubrick!). HAL doesn’t want to hurt anybody; it doesn’t want anything at all, for HAL is merely a sophisticated program. In fact, HAL is arguably the best-know malevolent Artificial Intelligence in the sci-fi genre. Designed to control the Discover One spaceship, HAL comes to the conclusion that the pesky astronauts on board are endangering the mission in order to save their own comparatively worthless skins. HAL’s calculus is less inclined to favor their lives over the successful completion of their intended journey. In other words, it is perfectly willing to get the job done by any means necessary… even if that includes wiping out the mutinous crew.

Margaret Atwood’s bleak and dystopic Oryx and Crake is somewhat overlooked in comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale (which you may have run into during English class?). This particular novel defies hard categorization; it isn’t exactly science fiction, but most book sellers don’t have shelf space for speculative fiction. As the author herself said, Oryx and Crake doesn’t portray anything humans can't yet do or begin to do. In any case, we’re putting the book on this list because Crake totally fits the bill as a civilization-destroying evil scientist! Told through the recollections of a once little boy named Jimmy (now a survivalist adult nicknamed "Snowman"), the tragedy tells the story of how Jimmy befriended a young geneticist, Glenn, a partner of Jimmy’s father. Little Jimmy and Glenn (later referred to as "Crake") grow up together in their post-apocalyptic world, going to school and engaging in a variety of unsavory activities which would be illegal (and immoral) today. Glenn begins to perfect his genetically-altered version of peaceful, plant-eating humanoids, which, unbeknownst to Jimmy, he intends to use as a global replacement for Mankind. Engineering a lethal virus in pill form, Glenn uses his naïve friend to help distribute the deadly disease, leading to the wholesale extermination of society.

In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s protagonist is young genius Ender Wiggin, who is singled out for his unique cognitive abilities. But Ender isn't the only smarty in the family; both his siblings are hyper-intelligent, as well. Yet Peter, Ender’s psychopathic older brother, does not possess the leadership qualities that the government was monitoring them all for—a fact which makes Peter jealous when they realized Ender did have such traits. Peter takes to violently abusing and threatening Ender, inadvertently making him all the more ready to handle the future stress and torment of Battle School. When Ender is whisked off by the military to eventually lead the charge against a seemingly hostile alien threat, Peter and their sister decide to play a game. Pretending to write eloquent political diatribes under pseudonyms, their hope is to garner attention from the warring factions of the government. The deceit works, and Peter is believed to be an important figure known as Locke, who ultimately manipulates his way up the ladder of the Hegemon to become leader of Earth. A truly complex and at times sympathetic character, Peter Wiggin may be destined to remain overshadowed by his little brother, Ender. But due to his inventive, quixotic nature, he’s certainly worth a deeper literary examination.

Who’s that handsome devil on all those wall-sized posters just out your dingy apartment window? Big Brother! And who watches over you on the monitors while you work and sleep and eat in the workers’ cafeteria? Big Brother! And yet we know next to nothing about Orwell's mystery man. Don’t let it get you down, comrade! Have another shot of synthetic Victory Gin and lighten up. Everything’s under control when Big Brother is at the helm… and in London’s grim, dystopic future, he and the Party, INGSOC, are always at the helm.

Meanwhile, Big Brother and his surveillance state keep tabs on his workers to ensure their total compliance with the goals and policies of said party. One day, Oceania’s at war with Eurasia, while the next it is at war with Eastasia. Big Brother’s Thought Police offer a gentle helping hand in making certain no one gets too confused...

Atwood’s classic, award-winning novel supposes a future in which America is replaced by a militant theocracy. This event transpires on the heels of a false flag coup against the government. Blaming Islamic terrorists, the devoutly Christian Sons of Jacob swoop in and quickly establish the Republic of Gilead. Basing their doctrine on Old Testament biblical notions, the new government begins to strip women of all rights… including the right to read! A young handmaid named Offred, whose purpose is to serve as a baby factory, belongs to a gentleman named Fred. Fred is also known as the Commander. Engaging in an illicit relationship with Fred, Offred still recalls her former life with her husband, child, and their attempt to flee to Canada. But those days are long gone, and now Fred and his own wife, Serena Joy, both use Offred for their own agendas while she struggles to blend in and figure out how to stay alive long enough to be reunited with her captured daughter. Fred tends to treat his captive well by offering her gifts and allowing her to read in his private library. He even takes her along when visiting his secretive officers’ brothel, believing this to be entertainment for her. However the reader soon realizes the dangers to which Offred is exposed, for Fred's previous handmaid committed suicide after their relationship was exposed. Coated thick with a veneer of benevolence, Fred the Commander sets the template for the corrupt, sexually-deviant, high-ranking political figure… Glad there aren’t any men like that in real life!

Cthulhu doesn’t really care what you think, and why should he? Hundreds of meters tall, the ancient, tentacle-faced god from before the days of humanity is far too occupied napping for centuries underwater. H. P. Lovecraft’s imprisoned creature first appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 1928, described as part-man, part-octopus, and part-dragon (how many parts does this thing have?), waiting for his big moment to return in style. But again, the Great Old One tends to dwell beneath the earth and sea anyways, thus remaining a generally unseen mythical being which is worshiped by cultists and feared by everyone else. Most fear him in part because he is somehow embedded within the collective memory of humanity in the form of their worst nightmares. The morally ambivalent Cthulhu doesn’t really do too many physically threatening things, so is he truly a villain, or is he just another misunderstood legendary monster? Whichever side you pick, we know many other authors have expanded upon his legend. He has also influenced the actual world of science with species named after him and a region of Pluto, as well.

literaturelistscience fiction

About the author

Matt Cates

Freelance writer and owner of Cates Content and Copywriting; retired Air Force Veteran; former administrative assistant at Oregon State University; author of Haveck: The First Transhuman, the greatest sci-fi novel in the multiverse.

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