Do Good Science Fiction Novels Require Memorable, Powerful Protagonists?

Saturday , 22, July 2017 38 Comments

My own column from two weeks ago got me thinking recently.  Has there ever been a good, nevermind great science fiction novel that did not feature a strong, unique hero?  We’re not considering short stories or novellas, as some don’t even have significant protagonists, but full-length works.

At first, my mind couldn’t come up with an example.  Even books famed for other qualities had excellent heroes.  Dune has the best world-building I’ve come across, but Paul Atreides is a tremendous protagonist.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a phenomenal story of revolt, conspiracy, politics, and freedom, but it has no fewer than four memorable, outstanding main heroes, including the computer, Mike.  In fact, none of the Heinlein books I read qualify. A common theme of many of his works, especially the juveniles, was the transformation of the main character into a hero.

Philip K Dick may be known for his brilliant, insane works, but damn if Rick Deckard or Jason Tarverner aren’t resourceful, intellectually deep, original protagonists.

Finally, I came up with two books, and it will be interesting to see whether their more generic, weaker protagonists added to the story or hindered it.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin

This novel convinced me that in her heyday Le Guin had genuine talent.  I think about the book with considerable sadness, however, since it should have been an all-time, legendary classic. Instead it was marred by considerable flaws and the end result is merely a good novel, not a great one.

A full review will have to wait for another time, but let me briefly summarize it.  George Orr is a normal man with an unusual ability.  When he has vivid dreams, they change reality.  Furthermore, he is the only person who remembers what the old reality is like.  He might dream that a presently living senator died ten years ago, and when he wakes up, that is the new fabric of reality.

Orr sees this as a terrible curse and tries to use narcotics to suppress his dreams.  He eventually comes across Dr. William Haber, who is initially skeptical of his claims, but when he realizes they’re true, attempts to use Orr’s power to sculpt the fabric of reality for his own ends.

Orr is a very passive, weak character, allowing himself to be bullied and controlled by Haber throughout most of the book.  He doesn’t have much of a personality, either.  Orr’s generic, weak nature gives the patient-doctor relationship a very strong realism that is a powerful grounding force for its science fiction ideas.  And it helps the plot, explaining how Haber gets so far in his schemes.

However, there are costs associated to having such a protagonist.  Since he has so little personality, Orr’s romance with Heather is neither believable nor interesting.  Who cares about the love life of a block of wood, and why would any woman be drawn to that?  Orr’s personality also has the effect of making the antagonist, the selfish, slightly foolish Dr. Haber, more relatable than the protagonist by mere virtue of representing something.

And of course, there is the ending, a trainwreck that is the worst part of the book.  Orr finally rises up against Haber, but it’s done in such a ham-fisted, unbelievable manner, under such ludicrous circumstances, and with such a laughable, deus ex machina resolution, that one can only laugh and shake his head.  Orr being a non-entity is certainly not the main reason for this dumpster fire of a conclusion.  And perhaps a more skilled writer than Le Guin could have smoothly written Orr’s transformation into a man who takes control of his own fate.   But his earlier cowardice and blandness doesn’t help.

What can we conclude?  Making Orr weaker and less decisive was likely the correct decision for The Lathe of Heaven.  However, Le Guin went too far, stripping him of all personality and vigor, hurting the novel in several respects.  It’s often stated that male authors struggle to write good female characters.  Perhaps this is a case of a female author struggling to write a good male protagonist?

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

William Mandella is a far cry from George Orr, and The Forever War is a better book than The Lathe of Heaven, possessing no major flaws.  Mandella is tough, competent, and manages to stay alive during an intergalactic war spanning millennia (thanks to time dilation) without going insane.

However, is Mandella truly memorable?  Is he a character one will remember and think back upon for a long time to come?  Is he a powerful hero who defies the fate that seemingly more powerful forces have in store for him?  No on all counts.  Mandella is an army grunt who is at the mercy of whatever his commanding officers tell him to do.  Being in his early twenties when the novel begins, he hasn’t had much opportunity to develop a personality, either.

Of course, Haldeman was largely writing about his own experiences being drafted into the Vietnam War straight out of undergrad.  This makes the character very relatable for the reader and lends the story of an intergalactic war against aliens a poignancy and powerful realism.  Writing a more lively, resourceful hero simply wouldn’t have fit the tale of a young scientist fresh off college fighting for his life.  It also would have slightly weakened the somber and tragic elements of the story, reading as more of a science fiction adventure.

The romance between Mandella and Marygay Potter works fine, since both are young people drawn together by the crisis and terror of war.  Simply surviving together is enough here.

In this case, Haldeman writing a more generic, less classically heroic protagonist for his novel was the right choice.

Do you know of other science fiction novels without strong, memorable protagonists?  Feel free to note them in the comments below.

38 Comments
  • I approached this challenge by mentally listing some of my favorite books and seeing if I could immediately remember the protagonists.

    The one I came up with–the ones I couldn’t–include some of Glen Cook’s sci-fi (not his fantasy, for which I immediately remembered them). For example, I think Passage at Arms is an excellent, possibly great book, but I can’t remember much about the protagonist, except he was a reporter, and so is cast in the role of observer of the Diver crew. Others of his books set in that universe echo the issue.

    I had difficulty coming up with any more. This validates the idea that great books, especially memorable ones, with few exceptions require great characters, usually protagonists.

    This applies to other storytelling media–movies, TV. Great shows had great characters–Original Star Trek and Star Wars, for example. Shows like Lost In Space failed because, among other reasons, the most memorable characters were the robot, the boy and the despicable Dr. Smith. Also, I can barely even remember any of the antagonists on Lost In Space because none rose to the level of a Trelane, a Khan, a Kang, a Q. Great protagonists require great antagonists. This concept is what makes great superhero stories great.

    • Vlad James says:

      Heh, “Lost in Space” was a rotten show for many reasons, but yes, the loathsome coward Dr. Smith was its undisputed star, since everyone else was as bland and predictable as the robot.

      In general, I agree with your conclusions about stories, which is why it’s so interesting to look at the few exceptions.

  • DanH says:

    I have not read “The Lathe Of Heaven” as I am not a fan of LeGuin’s work.

    It is important to keep in mind that Haldeman’s “Forever War” was written primarily as an anti-“Starship Troopers”.
    Heinlein’s premise is that war makes a man of you and earns you a respected role in society. Haldeman says, War dehumanizes you and when it’s over you are alienated from society.

    Their works serve as an interesting contrast of each author’s personal experiences and the cultural perception of war and military service in their generation.

  • DanH says:

    Oops, I didn’t finish my point, that being;

    Thus we get a memorable hero in Johnny Rico, a callow youth who becomes battle-hardened, respected leader and defending humanity.

    And William Mandella who, while being highly capable and a battle-scarred survivor, it essentially a tool of powers beyond his control who ends up broken and discarded.

  • deuce says:

    People need heroes.

    Having a good villain doesn’t hurt, either. Personally, I think that’s one reason DIE HARD outshines LETHAL WEAPON, though they are very comparable in many other ways.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      People need heroes.

      Oddly enough, the anime Code Geass makes this very point in its ending — and Code Geass is about, you guessed it, war!

    • Aaron B. says:

      Weird, I didn’t even realize it until you pointed it out, but I can’t remember the villain of Lethal Weapon at all. I remember lines and scenes with the heroes, but the villain and his whole part of the story are a complete blank.

      • Vlad James says:

        He’s no Hans Gruber, but I do faintly remember the main villain of Lethal Weapon for the sole reason that he is played by Gary Busey at his most insane.

      • JD Cowan says:

        The first movie has Gary Busey, the second has “DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY!” and the fourth has Jet Li. It’s the third one that falls completely flat for many reasons up to and including that the villain is awful.

      • deuce says:

        “He’s no Hans Gruber, but I do faintly remember the main villain of Lethal Weapon for the sole reason that he is played by Gary Busey at his most insane.”

        I’m a Busey fan but he couldn’t carry his entire side of the equation like his counterparts in DIE HARD. Did the “Colonel” make any impression at all? The only other (barely) memorable bad guy was “Mr. Endo”.

        Meanwhile, DIE HARD has an entire rogues’ gallery of ne’er-do-wells. Gruber, of course, who so far exceeds the “Colonel” in coolness it’s pathetic. Then you have Karl, the platinum blonde counterpart to Busey, who’s pretty nuts and has the interesting sidestory of avenging his brother, Tony. Tony has some characterization and goes out well. You have the “Huey Louis” False Concierge at the door who is more memorable than the “Colonel”, fer Crom’s sake. Finally you have the utterly amoral black safecracker, Theo. Against all of them, Busey does not stack up adn LETHAL WEAPON suffers for that.

        • Vlad James says:

          Oh, I agree. I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to note how amusing I found Gary Busey (at the height of his drug addiction) as the antagonist in that movie, for his bizarre facial reactions and delivery alone.

        • deuce says:

          I know people who knew Busey back in the ’70s. He still owes Drama Club dues at my alma mater.

  • H.P. says:

    I would agree with Forever War. Browsing through books I have marked with 5-stars on Goodreads: I would add Quintessence, Krampus: The Yule Lord (Krampus, not the protagonist, steals the show), the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, Perdido Street Station. Definitely a distinct minority.

  • JD Cowan says:

    I’ve come to the point in my life that I can’t read a book without a dynamic lead that I can empathize with on some level.

    So I’m afraid I can’t give any examples of stories I enjoy without good and memorable heroes. One of the many reasons Prisoner of Zenda is a much better book than Double Star.

  • Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is an example of a good series that lacks a unifying strong character. With the exception of the Mule, the characters are tools of psycho-historical necessity. It’s challenging to depict a strong and memorable protagonist in the context of a story whose premise is that the actions of any particular individual hardly matter. Nevertheless, the Foundation Trilogy is a fascinating series with an intriguing premise and a massive scale in both time and space.

  • Mark McSherry says:

    First meeting of Heinlein and Haldeman as told by Spider Robinson-

    “In 1975 the Nebula Awards Banquet was held in New York. I cadged a free ticket by agreeing to entertain as a folksinger prior to the awards ceremony. I’d have crashed if I’d had to: Robert Heinlein was being given the first ever Grand Master Nebula. I had been a professional writer for three years, I had never met Robert, and who knew how long he or I would live?

    “Before the banquet began, I joined the horde of SFWA members loitering in the lobby of the Algonquin, all of us hoping to catch a glimpse of the great man. I overheard several colleagues gleefully anticipating a bloodbath. “Haldeman actually had the nerve to show up,” one of them chortled. “Heinlein’ll rip his head off and drink out of the hole.” Joe Haldeman, it must be explained, had just published his remarkable first novel The Forever War. These writers explained to me that since Joe had “stolen” “Heinlein’s concept” of powered combat suits, and since his book embodied a certain disrespect for military traditions (grunts were required to shout obscene abuse at their officers every day, for example), Heinlein was sure to go for Joe’s throat if he saw him. After all, everyone knew that Heinlein was a cranky old fascist …

    “Robert arrived, and the room swarmed around him. Jim Baen, who loved him more and better than any other editor he ever worked with, took on the task of making introductions. My companions’ eyes lit up as Haldeman appeared, looking apprehensive but determined. Murmurs arose as he moved up in line, and reached the buzz stage as he stepped forward and Baen said, “Mr. Heinlein, I’d like to present Joe Haldeman, author of—”

    “— The Forever War, of course,” Robert said, striding forward and thrusting his hand out. “It is an honor to meet you, sir. That may be the best future war story I’ve ever read!” A little while later Joe drifted away, his shoes an inch from the carpet, beaming aimlessly. My companions were quite disappointed …”

    Robinson, Spider; Larry Niven; Tom Clancy; Spider Robinson. Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master (Kindle Locations 6477-6492). . Kindle Edition.

    • Vlad James says:

      An amusing anecdote, although this makes it clear what illiterate idiots the majority of science fiction fans were in the 70s, nevermind today.

      Had they been paying attention to Heinlein’s work from that period, whether The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and especially the criminally underrated The Glory Road, they would have predicted that reaction.

  • I have to disagree with you on both “Lathe Of Heaven” and “The Forever War”. I’d go so far as to say that Orr and Mandala are two of my favorite characters in all of fiction.

    Books without memorable characters? I’d say Jack Vance’s “The Dying Earth”, which I couldn’t finish, Clifford Simak’s “Way Station”, which I also couldn’t finish, and Poul Anderson’s “The Hearts And Three Lions”, which I did finish, but had to really push myself through.

    • Vlad James says:

      What did you find appealing or interesting about either Orr or Mandella?

      I would have included Simak’s “Way Station” except for one problem. I wrote “good science fiction” and the novel is average at best. You didn’t miss out on much by leaving it unfinished, either; the ending is a disappointment.

      • I’d have to say the way that they were written, both of them. They both wanted a quiet, normal life, and were prevented from having that by being given power that they did not want.

        The story arcs have certain similarities, in fact. They celebrate ordinary life. George Orr believes in order, in the fitness of things. He wants to live within the world, not change it.

        William Mandala believes in peace. He also wants a simple, ordinary world. He does not want to be a soldier, but he has been made into one.

        These characters are the opposite of weak. Weak characters seek power because they think power will make them happy.

        Strong characters don’t want the responsibility of power, but if they have it, take the responsibility seriously and refuse to set it down until it can be done safely.

        I think I would like both of those characters if I were to meet them in real life. And I believe that both of them earned the respect and love of their women.

        • Jesse Lucas says:

          George Orr would have been hard to understand if I hadn’t been familiar with the concepts of Taoism. His power comes from his stability, his unchangingness – in fact, if it had been anyone else they would have twisted the world into their dreams instead of saving it from nuclear annihilation.

          And Faber’s no slouch, either. He’s a heroic scientist, curious and courageous. He’s probably aware that Orr could dream him right out of existence but he keeps pushing because he believes that if he pushes enough he’ll solve things, while Orr knows it’s all about knowing the right way to be pushed.

          I wasn’t impressed with Mandala, though. He felt more like an author surrogate, like all the Haldeman heroes I’ve read. It probably would have been easier to see what you saw if we’d seen him from the outside.

          • I’ll buy that Mandala was an author surrogate, given what I know of Halderman’s background. However, he had enough of an appeal that I related to the character, despite being very different in life experience.

            I tend to relate better to protagonists who don’t want adventure and excitement and instead have it forced on them. That parallels my own experience–I have been in very exciting situations and without exception I always wished I was at home, being bored, instead.

        • Vlad James says:

          “Wanting a quiet life” is not enough for a main character, however. Nor does it make one memorable or powerful.

          A powerful character bends fate to his will. A more ordinary character, like Mandella or Orr, is just along for the ride, powerless to change matters.

          Incidentally, I only called Orr “weak” in the article. Mandella is not weak, but neither is he strong or unique. He is simply a scrappy grunt meant to mirror what Haldeman was in his early twenties.

          • I expect that is largely a matter of personal taste. I tend to prefer characters who are fighting to maintain or restore order rather than those whose goal to sow chaos.

            Manny Davis from “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, for example, or Frodo and Sam from “The Lord Of The Rings”.

    • cirsova says:

      Dying Earth was the weakest of the Vance books I’ve read. The lack of memorable characters, though, can be attributed to being a collection of loosely related short stories; it wasn’t even really a fix-up so much as an anthology that wasn’t super clear that it was an anthology. It’s also some of his earliest work, so it’s a bit rough around the edges.

  • Mr Tines says:

    My vote on the topic is a resounding “No!” — what is needed is a memorable, powerful _concept_. Thinking on books I would recommend as SF, it is what it it about, rather that who, that leads.

    The first example that came to mind is, as one might have expected, Vinge’s _A Fire Upon The Deep_, with its ensemble cast, where it is the Zones, the interstellar Usenet of 1990 and the Tines that carry it.

    A more extreme counter-example would be Gren Egan’s oeuvre, which excels when it sticks to high-concept, but which fails hardest when the characters aren’t merely observer/enabler ciphers.

  • Andy says:

    I’d agree with the example of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.
    Simak’s “City”? Offhand I don’t recall the name of the central family, but I do remember the robot Jenkins.
    And future histories like Olaf Stapledon’s “Last and First Men”.

  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    The first book to come to mind is The Integral Trees by Larry Niven. I read it at 13 years old because the Michael Whelan art on the cover of the paperback blew my mind. And the concept blew my mind too.

    It was the first real science fiction I ever read. And I’m somewhat sentimental about it to this day, especially the concept and setting. But it be reread it a couple of times and I still can’t remember the protagonist or his name. Or anything else about him.

  • Doc Nick says:

    Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men is a classic without any central character at all, save the human species (plural) in general. But it may not be a novel, strictly speaking.

  • S1AL says:

    “I, Robot” contains several very memorable stories, but zero protagonists (or antagonists) that I can remember.

    • Jesse Lucas says:

      Don’t tell me you forgot about Susan Calvin! She’s hands-down the most interesting recurring character in Asimov, as she’s basically Asimov’s twin sister but even more autistic. Great fun.

      Asimov’s short story characters can be extremely memorable. I remember Mullen very well, and through him I can remember the cowardly colonel, the sickly former POW, the angry Greek brothers, the mantis-aliens. C-Chute beats Nightfall in just about everything. From the same collection there’s Ralson with his chemical burn scar fighting the alien-imposed urge to suicide, in what was in retrospect a frightening look at depression, and I probably remember more about the two protagonists of In A Good Cause more than anyone in Foundation who wasn’t Mule, Seldon, or a teenage girl.

      • S1AL says:

        Haven’t read enough of his work to recall anyone. My point is more that ‘I, Robot’ is good sci-fi regardless of the characters, because it’s about ideas.

  • Fred Foley says:

    Flowers For Algernon is an edge case. The main character begins as entirely passive, and is carried along by events throughout the whole book – there’s never anything he can do to affect the central plot.
    He does show a kind of stoic strength at the end though. By embracing the inevitable, he at least shows a moral courage that the other characters lack.

  • deuce says:

    Nearly all of Poul Anderson’s SF tales feature outstanding heroes. Even Nicholas van Rijn, outta shape as he is, could get pretty heroic when the rubber hit the road. He certainly didn’t lack courage.

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