It's never great to watch a beloved science fiction hero die - but sometimes a memorable heroic death can help turn a science fiction story into a real epic. And some science fiction characters are unforgettable and bad-ass precisely because they died in a memorable way.
Here's our list of the 10 greatest deaths in the history of science fiction. Beware: Major spoilers for some old TV shows, movies and books!
10) Orolo from Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
Orolo sacrifices his life in a really cool and noble way, to help the pursuit of knowledge and to help the people of Arbre to understand the alien ship in orbit. One of the aliens has been shot down on the planet, bringing along blood from all the different humanoids on the ship, and the people on the ship ignite a volcano to destroy her ship. Orolo gives up his spot on the evac helicopter to hand someone the body of the alien and stands there, being engulfed in lava:
"No!" I screamed one more time, as Orolo withered under the pressure wave. He flopped to the ground like a hank of rope. For a moment, smoke shrouded him: radiant heat shining out as a harbinger of the glowing cloud. Our aerocraft rocked and skidded sideways on hard air. The cloud erupted from the gates, vaulted over the rubble of the wall, and fell onto Orolo. For a fraction of a second he was a blossom of yellow flame in the stream of light, and then he was one with it. All that remained of what he'd been was a wisp of steam coiling above the torrent of fire.
9) Woody in Mission To Mars.
This is a pretty terrible movie overall, but a fantastic death scene. Our heroes have to abandon their vessel. And then Woody, played by Tim Robbins, leaves the others and launches himself at the Resupply Module (REMO), but after he attaches the line from the other astronauts at the REMO, he keeps moving towards the planet. His wife, Terri, wants to go after him, but Woody knows she'll die in the rescue attempt. So he takes off his own helmet and dies of depressurization, rather than let her die for him. (Thanks to Meredith for the suggestion!)
8) Lt. Paul Wang from Space: Above And Beyond.
"Everybody's favorite tortured bipolar guy," Lt. Wang, callsign "Joker," gives his life to hold off the aliens while everyone else gets away. "This is for you!" he shouts as he pours ammo into the enemy. Commenter oconnellmd suggested this scene, and I can see why.
7) Almost everybody in Blake's 7, "Blake"
The dark British space opera Blake's 7 is beloved for a few reasons — but its dark ending, in which pretty much everyone bites the dust, has got to be one of the main selling points. (And yes, I don't believe Avon survived, either.) Thank goodness the show wasn't renewed for a fifth season, because this season finale makes for an incredibly fitting end for the saga — one which makes all of the stuff that comes before seem cooler because it leads up to this. In my write-up on how to discover Blake's 7, I actually advocate watching the last episode first. Watch the final moments of Blake's 7 for yourself.
6) Pham Nuwen from A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge.
Pham Nuwen is animated by the Old One, a super-powerful artificial intelligence, and he dies fighting the Blight, another super-A.I. First Pham downloads as much of the Old One into his brain as possible, overclocking his human brain by containing this massive superhuman intelligence, which will inevitably destroy him. And then he launches the Countermeasure, an advanced weapon which moves the boundaries of the Slow Zone far enough to enclose and destory the Blight. But the Countermeasure also has the effect of terminating Pham at the same time:
The Countermeasure's writhing had slowed. Its light flickered bright and then out. Bright and then out. She heard Pham's breath gasp with every darkness. Countermeasure, a savior that was going to kill a million civilizations. And was going to kill the man who triggered it.
Almost unthinking, she dodged past the thing, reaching for Pham. But razors upon razors blocked her, raking her arms.
Pham was looking up at her. He was trying to say something more.
Then the light went out for a final time. From the darkness all around came a hissing sound and a growling, bitter smell that Ravna would never forget.
5) The T-800 in Terminator II.
After Arnold Schwartzenegger's T-800 helps Sarah and John Connor defeat Robert Patrick's mean T-1000 by blowing it up and knocking it into molten metal, Arnie knows he has to go too. If there's anything left of the T-800, the technology could be used to reconstitute Skynet and bring the badness down on our heads. So Arnie gets Sarah Connor to lower him - slowly - into the molten metal. He gives a thumbs up as he descends to his robo-fondue doom. (Thanks, Annalee!)
4) Biggs Darklighter from Star Wars.
I was seriously considering making Obi-Wan the coolest death from Star Wars, but really, screw that guy. First of all, as he points out himself, he comes back a thousand times more powerful afterwards. And secondly and more importantly, he's kind of a big martyr, as everyone points out in the awesome parody Hardware Wars. And Biggs doesn't have any super Force powers, or the ability to come back a thousand times more anything. All Biggs has is a X-Wing, a can-do attitude, and an awesome porn-stache. And he's the greatest wingman ever, taking enemy fire and blowing up so that Luke can nuke the Death Star and get all the glory afterwards. And watching the deleted scenes from the movie only makes Biggs seem more heroic, like when he talks to Luke about how he probably won't come back alive from joining the Rebel Alliance. When does baby Biggs get his own episode of the Clone Wars cartoon? Preferably with a little baby mustache?
3) Spike from Cowboy Bebop.
Martian bounty hunter Spike Spiegel gets into a duel with his former best friend, Vicious after Vicious' Red Dragon gang has killed Spike's girlfriend Julia. Spike finally decides to face the past with Vicious that he ran away from three years earlier, and he storms the Red Dragon headquarters, killing a bunch of its members as he climbs. Vicious manages to slash Spike with his katana, but then Spike shoots Vicious dead. Spike comes down the stairs, wounded and weakened, to face all the remaining members of the Red Dragon. Spike makes a gun with his fingers and says "Bang"... then collapses. Most people seem to assume Spike dies of his wounds, and it's not hard to find tons of people online listing this as one of the coolest death scenes in all anime, or all Asian films, let alone science fiction.
2) Roy Batty in Blade Runner.
Batty's "tears in rain" speech is one of the all-time great cinematic moments, and a really wonderful touch in a science fiction noir classic. After hunting down Batty for most of the movie, Dekker seems genuinely sad and upset to see this man extinguished, and the speech about all his lost memories is a moving reminder of how much anyone's death diminishes us all.
1) Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.
I'm not putting the pointy-eared green blooded Vulcan first just because I know I'd get lynched otherwise. I'm not even including the death of Spock because I pretty much memorized all the dialog from that scene as a little kid. I'm including it because it's the template of how to do a memorable, important death in a science fiction epic. The movie isn't ABOUT Spock at all, but it still feels as though the whole film has been leading up to his death. A lesser film would have been more clumsy and obvious about giving Spock a bunch of cool moments leading up to his death, and trying to manipulate us into feeling the Spock love before he snuffs it. Instead, we do get plenty of cool Spock moments, including giving Kirk his present and mentoring Lt. Saavik. But it's woven into the rest of the movie, and the film's running theme of the "no-win situation" and the impossibility of cheating death every single time help to set up the death of Kirk's best friend way better than a scene where Spock talks about what he's going to do when he retires and goes back to Vulcan. The result is one of the most amazing moments in Trek history, one of those moments where you can really beleive Trek is a sweeping saga instead of just a zany adventure with green women and Saurian brandy.
Note: This list originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, back in 2008.