Greatest Sci-Fi Protagonists
Was Hiro just living up to his name when he became one of the greatest sci-fi protagonists?
The literary multiverse has no shortage of would-be “heroes,” to use the term quite loosely. And when it comes to the wild and wooly genre of science fiction, it is practically a given that every story will feature some form of hero, antihero, or hero by default. Indeed, due to the flexibility of the genre, they literally come in all shapes, sizes, color, and species. Some are born of intergalactic royal blood; Others are constructed in cold laboratories out of wires, circuits, and steel. We’re going to attempt to pin down a list of the most compelling, original, and impactful protagonists the sci-fi world has ever known! Some you’ll see coming a light year away; others, hopefully, not so much… for where’s the fun in reading a list of names you already know? Enjoy!
In Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon series, 25th century humans are able to download their minds into new bodies… a fairly standard science fiction trope that we’ve seen many times before. But what makes the morally ambiguous, former military protagonist Takeshi Kovacs different is that his world feels more like that of a hard-boiled detective’s than a usual sci-fi genre novel should. And that’s a good thing! Sex and violence abound in this conspiracy-driven thriller, and the abused and tortured Kovacs has no qualms (permanently) killing his cyberpunk foes, most of whom have it coming in spades. In a novel that never pulls its punches, Kovacs is the perfect embodiment of what it takes to be a “good guy” when the whole galaxy’s gone brutally cold and death itself has lost its definition.
In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, the unfortunate hero hardly fits the physical mold one has come to expect. While he was still in the womb, Vorkosigan’s parents were attacked in an assassination attempt which left the unborn Vorkosigan’s body permanently damaged. With bones as brittle as chalk, a stunted stature, albino-like complexion, and a hunchback to boot, the royal-born Count overcomes his deformities and hones his people skills, becoming an accomplished manipulator of others. Unlike most sci-fi protagonists, Vorkosigan’s story is told over a lengthy series of novels, beginning with 1986’s The Warrior’s Apprentice, and carrying through 15 works, up to 2016’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Such a literary lifespan is practically unheard of, and has thus allowed Vorkosigan’s charming personality to evolve and grow as if it were not confined to the written word.
Another rarity in the wide world of science fiction, Orson Scott Card’s young hero from Ender’s Game has been featured in many sequels. A genius who was, by default, born a rebel due to the fact he was the third child in a world which banned having more than two children per family, Ender was soon singled out as a child of special gifts. Sent off to Battle School by a desperate government seeking military leaders among Earth’s prodigies, Ender quickly proved himself to be the most capable of the child-soldiers and graduated far ahead of schedule, to take command of a harried space fleet heading to war against an insectoid alien race. Disobeying orders to completely wipe out the alien homeworld, Ender discovers the tragic truth… that the aliens never meant to become the enemies of mankind in the first place. Upturning the standard “us versus them” storyline of most genre novels, Card has his hero take a different route, as warrior-turned-peacemaker… a refreshing change in direction for those weary of all the bloodshed.
In Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons, we come across a challenging dual narrative structure, with each arc moving in the opposite direction. In both, the life and times of Zakalwe are chronicled in order to meet midstream, where the reader finds Zakalwe has commanded an army in a civil war, only to later attempt suicide, then have his identity stolen! While the chance for spoilers are aplenty, we’ll only say Use of Weapons serves as both a useful social commentary, with its utopian “culture,” the communist society run by artificial intelligence, and its psychologically-perplexing protagonist, Cheradenine Zakalwe, a character about which it may rightly be said, there’s more to him than meets the eye!
Superficially related to Starship Troopers, John Steakley’s Armor dwells much more on the damage war causes on the human psyche. Felix is a heavily armored soldier “scout,” dropped into various hostile environments in order to execute commando missions in the face of staggering odds against his success. So depressed does he become that Felix generates an alter ego, which he calls “the Engine.” Unlike Felix, the Engine doesn’t let emotion slow him down; In fact, nothing stops the Engine once he gets going. He’s literally a survival machine. Thus, Felix gets utilized over and over, his missions taking on ever-increasing significance… meanwhile, through a sort of technologic psychotherapy, Felix’s actual memories and feelings are at last revealed, detailing his own traumatic horror at the graphic nature of the wars he’s been used to fight. Very deep, and relevant as ever.
The Stars My Destination, from Alfred Bester, starts with its unmotivated, would-be hero trapped on a dead ship, floating in space with no hope of rescue in sight. The lone survivor of the attack which crippled his ship, Foyle is able to repair the vessel but then is taken prisoner by a cult, which decides to tattoo his face to resemble a tiger! Escaping that, his streak of bad luck continues as it is discovered his ship had been hauling a precious cargo vital to the war effort. From there, things go from bad to weird, as Foyle’s tale twists into one of revenge. Reinventing himself as Geoffrey Fourmyle, an educated killing machine haunted by images of himself on fire, Foyle’s adventures culminate in his being revered as a type of holy prophet. Not a bad turnaround for a man who was abandoned and left for dead, to float alone in space for six months.
Perhaps one of the most entertaining members of this list, James Bolivar DiGriz justifies his life of crime as a sort of stellar Robin Hood… except he keeps the spoils for himself! An outspoken atheist and mastermind thief, DiGriz, or “the Rat” as he’s often labelled in Harry Harrison’s series, begins as a strange type of antihero by default, fighting against criminals up to even less good than himself. Abhorrent of violence, he ends up marrying a murderer. The Rat, unlike many of his counterparts from other books, happens to be a family man, with two twin boys. Unfortunately, due to time travel misadventures, DiGriz misses several years of their lives. Not surprisingly, the Rat is featured in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, titled You Can Be The Stainless Steel Rat. A wrong move equals being stuck in a time loop… a fate as bizarre as its hero!
Another hero of comic proportions, Douglas Adams’ inadvertent hero from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy spends his days as the official last human male amidst the most oddball crew of travelers the galaxy’s yet encountered—towel-obsessed Ford Prefect, ship captain Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the ever-depressing Marvin the Paranoid Android. The primary reason he finds himself stuck with such a goofball crew is, just prior to the total destruction of Earth, he and his friend Ford were forced to hitchhike their way off planet. The definition of British manners, Dent plays the voice of reason, more or less, when things go wrong… as they so often are apt to do around the likes of persons named after automobiles, or artificially intelligent machines with the word “paranoid” in their title. Featured not only in novels but also in radio plays, television, and a feature motion picture (in which Dent is portrayed by Martin Freeman), Arthur Dent continues to embody the spirit of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Or, as Ford Prefect would say, Dent really “knows where his towel is.”
Isaac Asimov was a renaissance man and a genius, so it makes sense he’d write genius characters. Such was the case of Hari Seldon, Asimov’s Trantorian mathematics professor, who invented the science of “psychohistory” in order to predict the future. Introduced in the ground-breaking Foundation series, it was not until the prequels and later Second Foundation Trilogy that Seldon came fully into his own. Seldon not only predicts the end of the Milky Way-spanning Galactic Empire, but also lays out a 1,000 year plan to replace it with something better. Now that’s detail-oriented! An inspiration to generations of writers as well as workers in the fields of statistics and probability, Asimov’s character and his methods have been compared to the current trend of Big Data analysis—essentially, as with many his science fiction ideas, the world is finally catching up to Asimov.
Severian isn’t the type of man to let another tell his tale. He does so himself, in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series. While it is rumored that sometimes his accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt, the rugged Journeyman is not shy about discussing his own faults. He is, by his own admission, crazy. Tall, dark, and masked, Severian stalks the Urth bare-chested and somewhat hostile (he is a professional torturer by trade!), with a magical claw hung around his neck, used to resurrect the dead. With traits of a deity, Wolfe clearly draws parallels between his hero and Jesus. Severian may not be omniscient, but he does have a perfect memory, a penchant for mercy, and, as a wanderer capable of bringing the dead to life, he is more of a messiah than your average sci-fi adventure-seeker.
Fallen Dragon is a far-future flung hard science fiction novel by Peter F. Hamilton, chronicling the equally hard life of Lawrence Newton, a mercenary for the Zantiu-Braun. The son of an ultra-powerful corporation owner from Amethi, a colonized world many light years distant, Newton’s dream of being a pilot is upended by his father. Undeterred, Newton takes a security forces job and departs for off-world missions, one of which introduces him to a sentient red dragon in possession of advanced technological information. Eventually becoming a recipient of the dragon race’s entire bank of universal knowledge, Newton ends up constructing his own time-traveling vessel, making good on his promise to be a pilot despite the ill-will of his domineering father. A complex, multi-layered mix of hard military sci-fi, epic high concept futurism, and elements of fantasy, Fallen Dragon has rightly gone on to takes its place on the mantle beside other genre classics.
Ahh, Dune. One of the most original mind-bending classics from the 1960s, Frank Herbert’s telling of the interstellar feud between the noble Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen is the stuff of space operatic legend. Young Paul Atreides, son of the Duke, is packed off with the rest of his royal family by the wily Padishah Emperor, whom they believe (rightly) is conspiring with the wicked Harkonnens to destroy them. But Paul’s mother, a Bene Gesserit witch bred purposefully to give birth to a mighty daughter, instead had given birth to Paul… whose latent abilities are far beyond the imaginings of the powerful sorceresses. Soon, Paul is revealed to be a far greater threat to the throne than any had perceived. Exposed and ultimately addicted to the mind-expanding drug “spice,” mined from the dessert planet of Arrakis (or “Dune”), Paul leads the locals of that world (the glowing blue-eyed, giant worm-riding Fremen) in a revolt against the oppressive Harkonnens, and ultimately fulfills their prophecy of a savior they call the Mahdi. Intriguing in its myriad political plots within plots, the expansive story arc of Atreides, later known as the superhuman messiah Muad’Dib, spun off countless sequels and prequels, many written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian (along with Kevin J. Andersen).
In Neal Stephenson’s wildly precognizant novel Snow Crash, the not-too-distant future is filled with denizens of Reality and those of an online world known as the Metaverse. Hiro, a Mafia pizza delivery boy and the self-styled “last of the freelance hackers,” pairs with a teenaged courier to peddle intelligence, but unwittingly stumbles upon a quixotic virus—Snow Crash—which can infect both Reality and the Metaverse. Tangled in a convoluted plot stretching back to ancient Sumer and involving goddesses, cults, and linguistics (remember, this is Neal Stephenson here!), Hiro eventually tracks down and spoils the plot of Raven, the disgruntled, nuclear-armed antagonist bent on bringing forth an information apocalypse. Published in 1992, Snow Crash has been the inspiration for 3D networks and virtual globe programs, including Google Earth. It also brought the programming term “avatar” into popular usage.