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The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Edited by Gary Westfahl. Advisory Board Richard Bleiler, John Clute, Fiona Kelleghan, David Langford, Andy Sawyer, and Darrell Schweitzer. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005. 1395 pp.
For more information about this three-volume encyclopedia, you can visit the Greenwood Press web site, which includes an overview and excerpts from reviews, or read my Locus Online essay about the encyclopedia,  "Confessions of an Accidental Encyclopedist, or, How I Prepared New Maps of Hell and Other Exotic Territories."
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders



Loosely speaking, one might call the protagonist of any narrative its hero. However, the convention of describing flawed or despicable protagonists as "anti-heroes" establishes that true heroes are not simply centers of attention, but objects of admiration and respect. Once, one called such men heroes and such women heroines, but feminists objected to the secondary status implied by the latter term, and now one usually refers to both men and women as heroes (see Feminism). Separate entries discuss superheroes and the genre associated with heroes, heroic fantasy.


According to science fiction and fantasy, what qualities define a hero? One can develop a provisional answer by examining the disparate heroes of representative writers.

One attribute admired in ancient times was sheer physical strength, conspicuously displayed by the ancient Greeks' favorite hero, Hercules, and the Bible's Samson. Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian (see Conan the Conqueror) is in this tradition: not particularly cerebral, he triumphs over adversaries primarily by means of brute force. Such heroes are portrayed in films by muscular bodybuilders like Steve Reeves (Hercules [1958]) or Arnold Schwarzenegger (Hercules in New York [1971], Conan the Barbarian [1984]); even Kevin Sorbo's more civilized Hercules in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys still displays impressive biceps. Female heroes with similar qualities include Red Sonya (1986), a character created by Howard, and Xena: Warrior Princess. Other sorts of exaggerated physical abilities may characterize heroes; Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes, for example, possesses not only great strength but also extraordinarily sensitive sight and smell.

However, in worlds with advanced technology, sheer strength may no longer be important; instead, heroes may succeed due to mental abilities—knowledge and intelligence. The prototype for such heroes—Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes—lies outside of science fiction and fantasy, but the genres have long embraced the figure of the detective, or detective-like figure, who saves the day by solving puzzles. Isaac Asimov's novels feature detectives like Lije Baley of The Caves of Steel (1953) and later robot novels (see I, Robot) as well as adventurers like Lucky Starr, the hero of six juvenile novels beginning with David Starr, Space Ranger (1952), who rely more on wits than muscles. Glen Cook's Private Investigator Garrett, whose exploits in the fantasy city of TunFaire began with Sweet Silver Blues (1987), is modeled more on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, solving crimes by means of streetwise shrewdness.

A type of intelligent hero unique to science fiction is the scientist hero, who creates amazing inventions and uses them to rescue people and defeat villains. There were plucky boy inventors in dime novels of the nineteenth century, like Harry Enton's Frank Reade and Luis Senarens's Jack Wright, who influenced the scientist heroes later observed in Harold Garis's Tom Swift novels and Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (1925). In E. E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (1928), two scientists invent a spaceship and fly away to involve themselves in adventures thousands of light years from Earth. Other noteworthy scientist heroes in science fiction include Doyle's Professor Challenger (see The Lost World), Nigel Kneale's Quatermass (see The Quatermass Experiment), Asimov's Dr. Susan Calvin (featured in I, Robot), and Star Trek's Mr. Spock.

Still, neither brawns nor brains will be enough to prevail if a hero lacks the courage to take decisive and appropriate action in the manner of Robert A. Heinlein's characteristic "Heinlein Hero." While strong and intelligent, the Heinlein Hero mostly triumphs by means of sheer orneriness, a refusal to give up even in the face of impossible odds. A defining moment comes at the end of Heinlein's Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1957), when a boy facing advanced aliens in space who threaten to destroy Earth's Sun responds with shocking defiance, announcing that humans will build their own sun and then go after their alien adversaries. One also recalls the energetic resistance to alien invaders displayed by heroes in The Puppet Masters (1951) and Starship Troopers.

Yet another model of heroism is presented by Ursula K. Le Guin's Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness and Shevek in The Dispossessed. Both men are unquestionably strong, intelligent, and courageous, but they earn our admiration primarily because of their compassion for other people, determination to do the right thing, and persistence in figuring out the proper course of action; their unquestionable heroism is rooted in a sense of ethics. One also recalls Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, in which a developing homo gestalt possesses psychic powers but cannot function properly until it incorporates someone to provide it with a conscience.


Finally, one might ask, what distinguishes a superhero from a hero? If an heroic figure implausibly possesses all the listed qualities, even if officially lacking superpowers, one might consider that person a superhero; an example might be Batman, whose combination of physical strength, keen intellect, remarkable courage, and compassion for the underdog enables him to hold his own alongside more powerful colleagues in the Justice League of America like Superman and Wonder Woman. If an heroic figure more believably succeeds primarily because of one of these qualities, that person might be deemed a hero. Thus, while naive children gravitate toward superheroes, more jaded adults are willing to settle for heroes.


Orson Scott Card. "Heroes and Villains." SFWA Bulletin, 14 (Spring, 1979), 21-23.

Barbara Dixson. "Enlarging the World." IAFA Newsletter, 2 (Spring, 1989), 26-43.

Maureen Fries. "Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes." Sally K. Slocum, ed., Popular Arthurian Traditions. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992, 5-17.

Don Hutchison. The Great Pulp Heroes. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1996.

Judith Y. Lee. "Scientists and Inventors as Literary Heroes." Joseph W. Slade and Lee, eds., Beyond the Two Cultures. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990, 255-258.

W.M. Schuyler, Jr. "Heroes and History." R. E. Myers, ed., The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983, 197-210.

James Van Hise, ed. Pulp Heroes of the Thirties. Yucca Valley, CA: Midnight Graffiti, 1994.

Gary Westfahl. "Superladies in Waiting." Foundation, No. 58 (Summer, 1993), 42-62.

Carl B. Yoke. "Slaying the Dragon Within." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 4 (1991), 79-92.

Gary Westfahl

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