All through the history of science fiction and fantasy we’ve had heroes. Frodo, Gandalf The White, and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in “Star Wars,” James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock in “Star Trek,” and even the somber, brooding Paul Atreides in Dune.
In recent years we’ve seen the rise of the anti-hero, the nihilistic types such as John Constantine, Neo from the “Matrix” films, and too many of the modern day urban fantasy literary protagonists to mention. They are legion. Moral men and women who follow a set of rules or a code of honor often find a gruesome end in modern fiction. Witness poor old Ned Stark and son Rob and family in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
But in the genre I write, Space Opera (or Military SF, as my agent insists on calling it), you most often have to have a true hero to carry things along. The ongoing popularity of the Honor Harrington books by David Weber (20+ books), Mike Shephard’s Kris Longknife series (15+ books) and Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series hero Black Jack Geary have led me to conclude you need a “true” hero to succeed in this genre. But why? What is it about our heroes, coming back book after book (or episode after episode) to face the challenges of the unknown against impossible odds (and usually superior enemies) that keeps us coming back?
Certainly the noble hero is an archetype, a generally good man or woman that exhibits our highest moral values in defeating evil and restoring balance and stability to an otherwise struggling world. But perhaps it’s more than that.
Even in our post-modern hipster generation these classic heroes and their stories are immensely popular. In my case, I grew up in a simpler time, the late 60’s and early 70’s when these were the only real kind of heroes portrayed on TV and in films. Oh, there was the odd “Man With No Name” Westerns starring Clint Eastwood, or even the tough guy anti-hero played by Charles Bronson, but for the most part the heroes were The Rifleman, the detectives from “Hawaii 5-0,” Wonder Woman, or the cops on “Adam 12.”
So what do these heroes represent? As I said up above, I think they represent our highest aspirations, the guys and girls we’d like to be (or believe we can be) when we grow up. But then something got in the way.
A big part of that was — reality. Most real-life heroes are not perfect, not morally clear from day one. In most cases they had to go through some very rough and difficult times just to survive. As the old saying goes, heroes are made, not born.
There was an HBO series a few years back, “Band of Brothers,” that showed the real life struggles of one company of men in the US Army in World War II. The men of Easy Company were flawed in every way, but they answered the call, first on the beaches at Normandy, then in Holland, the Siege of Bastogne, and eventually the unit ended up taking Hitler’s vaunted “Eagle’s Nest” high in the Bavarian Alps. The leader of Easy Company was Captain Richard Winters. Winters is shown constantly thinking more about the welfare of his men than about winning battles. His second in command through much of the action is Lt. Lewis Nixon, a man with a serious drinking problem. Imagine a “Star Trek” where Spock had a serious issue with tranya. That would kinda change the dynamic.
As the series develops, you realize a hard truth: none of these men wants to become a hero. They just want to do their jobs and get home to their loved ones. But as situations are thrust upon them, they’re forced to react, forced to take action and follow orders, and through this process they become the heroes we all aspire to be in some way.
This is an important theme in my Lightship Chronicles books. Nobody is looking to become a hero, but at times they must act heroically, even make decisions they find morally difficult, in order to save lives and defend their families and way of life. It’s my belief that we still need these kinds of heroes, real people stuck in real circumstances doing what needs to be done, to give us a hope and belief not in some super man, but in ourselves. It was a lesson my father’s generation learned, and benefited from.
So why do I write these kinds of heroes into my books? Simple reasons, really.
I want to give my readers hope. Hope that in their own everyday lives, fraught with all the difficulties of the modern world, they can still act and make choices out of a higher sense of responsibility, a connection to something greater than themselves. I can’t say those decisions will always yield positive results, often times they won’t, in fact more often than not they will probably fail. But I believe by the very act of trying, we enrich ourselves and our own lives.
Secondly, I want my readers to enjoy my work. As George R.R. Martin has proven, there is some great popularity to be found in a kind of moral relativism where the good guys don’t always win, where the honest are not always avenged, and where any character is in danger of losing their head at any time. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write. I want my readers to hope and fear and share in the successes, or failures, or my characters. And I want them to know that even if they fail, my heroes will fail trying to “do the right thing”.
And lastly, a simpler and more personal reason; I want to believe in heroes too.
Many years ago, in 1998, the Upper Deck sports trading card company ran a TV commercial that went something like this: “You know he’s not perfect… but on certain days, he has been. And you wish at some point, you could be that perfect too. That’s why you believe in him. That’s why you believe in heroes.”
And that’s my hope, that someday in my life, in all our lives, we can be that perfect. We can be heroes.
Starbound by Dave Bara is on sale from DAW Books on January 5, 2016.