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—
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—
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—
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—
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—
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—
And is memorable along the way.