Why Do Anti-Heroes Rule Science Fiction?

The first time I ever read the word "anti-hero," it was in an article about science fiction, and it's always seemed a very science fictional type of word — like anti-matter, or anti-gravity. Science fiction has its share of one-dimensional white hats, but the characters who capture our imagination are usually the morally blurred rascals, who have their own best interests at heart. You never quite know what an anti-hero will do next. Here's our guide to the roots of science fiction's greatest anti-heroes.

Why Do Anti-Heroes Rule Science Fiction?


The "anti-hero" comes to science fiction from a variety of sources, including noir and Westerns... but she also has her own uniquely science fictional avatars, that spring out of science fiction's tradition of skepticism and social criticism. The anti-hero is where science fiction's pulpy roots meet its most intellectual aspirations. Plus, he/she totally rocks on ice.

Noir:

My favorite noir hero is Dashiell Hammett's nameless Continental Op, who spends more time orchestrating convenient murders than he does investigating crimes. In the novel Red Harvest, the Op arrives in a town called Poisonville which is run by organized crime, and he systematically tricks the town's ruling gangsters into killing each other, first a few at a time and eventually in a full-on massacre. By the end, he's one of the few people left standing. In noir, nobody's morally pure.

The classic science fiction noir movie is Blade Runner, featuring Harrison Ford's hardboiled and conflicted cop, who's hunting the Replicants without being sure if he's doing the right thing. And of course Blade Runner is based on a Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, and a lot of Dick's best work has a particularly noir flavor of pulpiness. Dick's protagonists are never sure if they're doing the right thing, and often are just out for themselves. That could be one reason why Dick is the author of choice for movie adaptations — his work is very close to a genre that movie people understand.

Another great science fiction noir author is Richard K. Morgan (no clue if the middle initial "K" is a requirement), whose first novel Altered Carbon is like a fusion of Chandler with Doctorow's Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom: hard-as-nails gumshoe Takeshi Lev Kovacs dies in a shootout, and then is restored from a backup and "resleeved" in a new body so he can investigate the murder of a rich guy (who's also been restored and "resleeved.") And then Kovacs promptly sleeps with the rich guy's wife.

And then of course, there's always Jim diGriz, hero of the Stainless Steel Rat novels, who starts out as an amoral trickster — before eventually devolving into a bit of a pussycat. And there's Gully Foyle, dubious hero of Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. (And Alfred Bester becomes the name of a morally gray psy-corps agent on Babylon 5, who becomes more of a sympathetic anti-hero in Gregory Keyes' novels.)

Westerns:

The archetypal Western anti-hero is out for himself, and only incidentally ends up helping others. Often, he (and it's usually a "he," except for Sharon Stone in Sam Raimi's underrated The Quick And The Dead) is only a "good guy" in comparison to the really really shitty bad guys. Think Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name from the spaghetti westerns. Cowboy-influenced anti-heroes in science fiction are usually pretty easy to spot: Han Solo in Star Wars and Mal in Firefly have everything except the Ennio Morricone whistle/trumpet score playing in the background.

Why Do Anti-Heroes Rule Science Fiction?

I'm also going to peg Vin Diesel's Riddick from Pitch Black as a Western-style anti-hero — he's basically a convicted murderer being transported across the prairie in a wagon train, and then the wagons break down. Will he help save his captors, or let the elements and the hostile natives take care of them?

The Mad Scientist:

Unlike the noir and Western anti-heroes, the mad scientist has always belonged to science fiction, as far back as Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. As the name implies, the mad scientist doesn't always have the greatest grip on reality, unleashing forces he cannot blah blah blah. The mad scientist is often just a foil for the hero in space opera and action-adventure stories — but he's also a protagonist a surprising amount of the time.

On TV, Doctor Who features a mad-scientist archetype as the hero, and the early episodes of the series in the 1960s made a conscious effort to portray the Doctor as an anti-hero rather than a more uncomplicated good guy. Over time, the Doctor became purer and more motivated by compassion for other sentients, but he still gravitates back to the anti-hero side of the fence occasionally, most notably in the late 1980s.

Why Do Anti-Heroes Rule Science Fiction?

Cyberpunk:

Cyberpunk obviously borrowed a lot of themes and styles from noir, but also brought in its own flavor of anti-authoritarianism. The e-zine Computer Underground Digest debated, in 1991, just how anti-heroic the cyberpunk hero actually is. Brad Hicks wrote:

A cyberpunk is to hackers/phreaks/crackers/crashers what a terrorist is to a serial killer; someone who insists that their crimes are in the public interest and for the common good, a computerized "freedom fighter" if you will.
One anonymous person responded:
In the works of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and others, cyberpunks are not terrorists in the conventional sense of the term, and the analogy to serial killers strikes me as a bit extreme. Cyberpunks are characterized by their resistance to oppressive authority (which makes them a form of freedom fighter), but the resistance tends to be highly individualistic. I wonder if cyberpunks might be based on the anti-hero model of westerns (Shane) or earlier science fiction in which the marginal but basically decent outsider steps in to use marginal skills to save the town, country, or civilization?
Cyberpunk heroes like Case from Neuromancer are hard-bitten loners, guns for hire. And Cobb, who stars in much of Rudy Rucker's Ware series, is a conflicted computer scientist who becomes a robot and sides with various factions of the robot "Boppers" at times, but is constantly questioning his loyalties to both humans and robots. And of course there are Warren Ellis' many cyberpunk anti-heroes, epitomized by Spider Jerusalem — they usually have elements of the rock star and the porn star, even as they claim a place as rebel outsiders. Why Do Anti-Heroes Rule Science Fiction?

The Skeptic:

The rationalist skeptic, who critiques everyone else's ideals and delusions, is an outgrowth of the mad scientist, and usually has some scientific knowledge. But he's also a nihilistic superhero, who questions human-made belief structures. Avon from Blake's 7 is a bit of a mad scientist and a noir gun for hire, but he's also something else — a foil for rebel leader Blake's idealism who grows into a self-hating amoral hero in his own right. Avon serves as a role model for Horza, the bitter mercenary in Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel. The shape-shifting Horza tricks a shipfull of pirates into helping him track down a lost Culture Mind in the middle of a warzone. He's willing to make deals with his worst enemies and double-cross his friends, if the job requires it.

Why Do Anti-Heroes Rule Science Fiction?