Sunday, March 24, 2013

30 Days of Genre - Who Is the Best Hero in a Genre Novel?

I'm going to cheat a little bit with my answer here, and pick the protagonist in a work of shorter fiction than a novel. Specifically, I'm choosing Ted Long, the protagonist in the Isaac Asimov novella The Martian Way.

In the story, Long is the character who pays attention to the politics that will affect him and those around him. He is bookish and doesn't really fit in with the other hardened space scavengers that collect cast off iron from ships leaving Earth and ship it to the foundries in Mars. In most science fiction stories, the bold space hand would have been the hero, solving all of the problems posed with a monkey wrench, some elbow grease, and a heavy application of spit and wire. But the problem faced by the characters in The Martian Way isn't a problem that can be solved by grit, determination, and a little bit of luck.It is a problem that can only be solved by thinking at right angles to the conventional wisdom.

The various hardened space hands in the story are not stupid. Nor are they incompetent at their jobs. They are simply used to certain ways of doing things, and following certain accepted pieces of lore. And among those accepted ways of doing things is acquiring water from Earth. So when a politician named "Hilder" starts blaming the off-world colonies for Earth's alleged water shortage, and threatens to cut off all shipments, most of the characters keep thinking of how to continue to use Earth as their water supply - either by negotiating some sort of settlement with the Earth government, or by stealing the water from Earth's oceans, or some other means. Long has a different idea, and that is what makes him my favorite genre protagonist.

Long suggests that instead of continuing to look to Earth for water, the Martians should instead travel to Saturn and get their water from the ice in its rings. When the objection is raised that the "manual" says that humans cannot stand space travel for more than six months, Long points out that the inhabitants of Mars live in essentially space ship conditions for their entire lives. It is this sort of lateral thinking, or rather, this sort of imaginative thinking that takes the tools at hand and asks why people always use them the same way, that makes Long such an interesting character. Granted, the science in the story is a little outdated - we now know that the ice in the rings of Saturn is in much smaller chunks than what people believed at the time the story was written - but the essential point of the story remains.

Ted Long isn't the stereotypical hyper-competent science fiction protagonist of the sort that so often populates the pages of genre fiction. He's not a particularly good spacer, although he does know how to handle himself reasonably well. He's not brilliant at any particular thing, nor is he a master of several skills. He hasn't invented some radical new piece of machinery. He is just a guy who looked at the world, and looked at the technology on hand and asked "why aren't we doing this instead of that?" And those are the guys who change the world. Those are the guys who drive civilization forward. In a sense, when I pick Ted Long, I'm picking a type of protagonist, and not really a specific one. But he represents the type of protagonist who sits at the core of a whole lot of great science fiction, and who I wish we had more of in real life.

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