The Problem with “the Romantic Hero”

Despite being an incurable sci-fi buff, I’ve never read Orson Scott Card’s novels. Recently my brother-in-law has convinced me that I need to. Even if he hadn’t, what I read upon skimming through the author’s preface to Speaker for the Dead, did. The following provocative passage explains something I’ve noticed for some time (thanks to my wife’s keen observations about her viewing of Babylon 5 and Stargate: Atlantis)–namely, the trouble with the “romantic hero” who, more often than not, is the paradigm for the hero in science fiction. Card writes:

…I had observed before that one thing wrong with science fiction as a whole was that almost all the heroes seemed to spring fully grown from the head of Zeus–no one had families. If there was a mention of parents at all, it was to tell us that they were dead, or such miserable specimens of humanity that the hero could hardly wait to get out of town.

Not only did they have no parents, few science fiction heroes seemed to marry and have kids. In short, the heroes of most science fiction novels were perpetual adolescents, lone rangers who wandered the universe avoiding commitments. This shouldn’t be surprising. The romantic hero is invariably one who is going through the adolescent phase of human life. The child phase–the one I had dealt with most often in my fiction–is the time of complete dependence on others to create our identity and our worldview. Little children gladly accept even the strangest stories that others tell them, because they lack either the context or the confidence to doubt. They go along because they don’t know how to be alone, either physically or intellectually.

Gradually, however, this dependency breaks down–and children catch the first glimmers of a world that is different from the one they thought they lived in, they break away the last vestiges of adult control themselves, much as a baby bird breaks free of the last fragments of the egg. The romantic hero is unconnected. He belongs to no community; he is wandering from place to place, doing good (as he sees it), but then moving on. This is the life of the adolescent, full of passion, intensity, magic, and infinite possibility; but lacking responsibility, rarely expecting to have to stay and bear the consequences of error. Everything is played at twice the speed and twice the volume in the adolescent–the romantic–life.

Only when the loneliness becomes unbearable do adolescents root themselves, or try to root themselves. It may or may not be in the community of their childhood, and it may or may not be their childhood identity and connections that they resume upon entering adulthood. And, in fact, many fail at adulthood and constantly reach backward for the freedom and passion of adolescence. But those who achieve it are the ones who create civilization.

…The most important stories are the ones that teach us how to be civilized: the stories about children and adults, about responsibility and dependency…. [Introduction, pp. xvi-xvii]

I like this guy’s outlook on sci-fi writing. Looking forward to reading some of his works!

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