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December, 2008 : Feature:

Signals 15

Editor's Note: The alert reader may observe that this is "Signals #15." Where, you may ask, are numbers one through fourteen? IROSF is extremely fortunate, and also honored, to have Kristine Kathryn Rusch writing for us, but it does come through misfortune. Our sister publication, Æon Speculative Fiction, closed its doors recently for financial reasons, and it was in that publication, primarily a fiction magazine, that Ms. Rusch's column previously appeared. Still, it is our pleasure to introduce this regular column, now to appear monthly, to IROSF readers for the first time.

As I write this, the summer movie season has arrived. Iron Man last weekend, Indiana Jones next weekend, The Incredible Hulk a few weeks after that. Later in the summer, Will Smith plays Hancock, a superhero who learns how to be heroic all over again.

While I coordinate schedules with friends to maximize our movie viewing, I'm also reading three books. The first book is David Mamet's latest analysis of the movie industry, Bambi vs. Godzilla, the second is Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and the third is last year's Dozois annual, The Year's Best Science Fiction.

After we saw Iron Man, my friends and I had a small kafuffle. I liked the movie, but felt that it spent too much time on the suit. If Tony Stark can invent a suit in a cave with a fire and a blowtorch, for godsakes, then we don't need an extra half an hour of him improving the suit with the right equipment. We get it. With the right equipment, Tony Stark can make a suit that's completely cool.

Then my husband, Dean Wesley Smith—comic fan, former comic store owner, and occasionally comic book writer—put a hand over mine to gently shut me up. "The extra half hour is for the fans," he said softly, "because we know the hero in Iron Man isn't Tony Stark. It's the suit."

Okay. Explained that way, I understand that the filmmakers made the right choice after all. Just like I understand the machinations that Spielberg and Lucas went through to show us that 66-year-old Harrison Ford can play an action hero. Spielberg, Lucas, and the marketers of the film no longer trust us to recognize a very simple fact:

A hero is defined by his (or her) actions in a moment in time.

It took David Mamet to remind me of that fact. In a marvelous essay called, "Film Noir and He-Men," he talks about the way that modern moviemakers no longer trust us to appreciate an uncomplicated hero. "Their films," he writes, "depict the gentle progress of the protagonist toward self-actualization."

Note the words he chooses here: protagonist, not hero; gentle, not tough; and self-actualization, not action. Yet the box office this May (and probably throughout the summer) will yet again illustrate our desire for heroes—not just in our stories, but in our lives.

My visit to Kennedy Space Center in January, followed by my reading of The Right Stuff (yes, it's my first time; no, I don't know why I hadn't read it before), reminded me that heroes are extraordinary people. People who run into burning buildings while everyone else runs out. People who risk their lives to save someone else's. People who sit in tin cans on top of rockets that can (will) explode just so that they can be the first person in space.

In 1967, when Apollo 1 burned on the ground with three astronauts inside, the Apollo program continued. NASA—and the country—took heart from one of the astronauts who died, 40-year-old Gus Grissom. At a press conference years before, he said, "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business."

In 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger went down, no one mentioned acceptance. Instead, as the nation absorbed the tragedy, the talk became all about preventing another accident, as if space travel—space travelwere as commonplace as crossing the street.

No one outside of the astronaut pool dared mention the risky business. No one reminded the nation that John F. Kennedy said we do these things not because they're easy, but because they're hard.

In those intervening years, the country had changed.

Mamet refers to this change in his essay. He writes: "Look at the photographs in the family collection, of Dad or Grandad during the war or the Depression [...]. I used to look at them and think one didn't see those faces today. We saw them—briefly—on September 11th."

I'll go farther. We see them in the haphazard news coverage of Iraq or Afghanistan. We see them in our small towns when a disaster strikes. But mostly, our real life heroes are hidden from view.

Because we no longer write about the hard-drinking, emotionally detached heroes of our past, because our "heroes" have become characters we must understand and empathize with, we have lost an essential component to our storytelling.

The written science fiction genre has swallowed this nonsense whole. In the past, science fiction was littered with heroes from Skylark of Space to Susan Calvin.

Now we're hard-pressed to name a single SF hero. And if we do, most often they come from comic books or the movies, not from the literature itself.

I love science fiction. But lately, I've been feeling like the woman in Bonnie Tyler's song from the 1984 film, Footloose, "Holding Out for a Hero."

Damn right I'm holding out for a hero. I'd love one. Any day now. Emotionally crippled and hard-drinking is just fine. So long as he—or she—gets the job done.

And is memorable along the way.

Copyright © 2008, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at


Dec 3, 03:52 by IROSF
Comments on this article can be made here.

Article is here.
Dec 3, 06:39 by Denny Nelson
Maj. Michael (Mighty Mite) O'Neal for one.

I agree, Heros are needed badly.
Dec 3, 17:03 by Steven Gould
Perfect, Kris. Getting the job done.
Dec 3, 18:11 by Paul Jessup
here's a link to the Mamet article:

Not sure if I agree with him 100%
Dec 3, 18:16 by Bluejack
Note you can hotlink: Mamet Article
Dec 4, 21:26 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Testify, sister, testify!
Dec 9, 03:44 by Adrian Simmons

I long for the days when we could call a spade a spade and wicked lich-king a wicked lich-king! Sometimes people really are rotten from the start.

But, honestly, do you think that the strong silent type hero you propose could get any traction among editors and fans in this day and age?
Mar 19, 21:06 by Paul Schilling
So by homogenized do we mean made them all the same or weakened them? Churning out movies about he-men wouldn't solve the first problem; he-men heroes are more interchangeable than others.

And the problem with non-introspective, emotionally detached, just do it heroes, is that I also just described the villians, too. Being non-introspective and emotionally detached is how the CEOs of companies that make tobacco products, SUVs, and guns sleep at night. I concede that you can make great books with these characters, books like LA Confidential which is darker than the movie, but it also made me want to take a shower after I read it. I concede that you can write realistic books with these characters, too. But we shouldn't forget that these qualities of he-men cut both ways, causing many of the problems they also solve.

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