November 23, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas

Who is your hero? Nobody? Are our heroes in the twentieth century like the indefatigable Indiana Jones or are they like the surgeon that removes the tumor from a loved one’s breast? How do we classify the qualities that are heroic in this heroless age? Are there no heroes because we cannot agree on any heroic qualities? Was it easier when we knew less? Perhaps this question is difficult because we do not know who or what our enemies are. Beowulf knew his society’s enemy was Grendel; therefore, to make his world a better place to live, he rid it of Grendel. Simple, yet in a time of comitatus, heroic as well. Is the goal of our hero still the same? To make life easier to live? Are all of our gods truly dead as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra proclaimed at the close of the nineteenth century?

François-Léon Bënouville, The Shade of Achilles Appearing to the Greeks

Joseph Campbell asked similar questions at the end of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He suggests that “the modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.”[1] This co-ordinated soul of which Campbell speaks is the individual soul that has lost the community of ancient times: “where then there was darkness, now there is light; but also, where light was, there now is darkness.”[2] The heroic endeavor, he suggests, in simple terms, would be rendering the modern world of technology and polyphony spiritually significant—i.e. to pave the way for modern humanity to realize their full potential in spite of the conditions of contemporary life.[2] Campbell opines that modern men and women have become too individual and too concerned with material matters that they have lost track of what it means to be human. What does it mean to be human? To be spiritually mature? This, it seems, is the epical question. If we can answer that then we can define the heroic qualities of our epic hero. To answer it, let us first look at the problems of contemporary life that keep us from our spiritual maturity.

C. S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, discusses the literary and the non-literary reader. He states that “as the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the unliterary reader wants only the event.”[3] The average reader of “pulp” fiction is the same as the average otiose viewer of MTV — no thought is required. Like a drug, these non-literary, unmusical diversions cease to be diverting and become a way of life rather than a pastime. Herbert suggests that we are becoming a nation of easily-controlled “bozos”: “Bozos are the huge, fat middle waist in the land. They clone. Everybody tends to drift toward bozoness. It has Oz in it. They mean well. They like their comforts. The Bozos have learned to enjoy their free time, which is all the time.”[4] These Bozos, like Lewis’ unliterary reader, can be likened to Campbell’s definition of the problem of the modern world. This monomaniacal trend toward stupidity—all show and no substance—can easily turn us all into Beavises and Buttheads who stammer “Ugggh, epics suck.”

This kind of society eschews difference and creativity.[5] Difference requires thought, and when something interrupts their comfortable, swift-moving narrative, they are quick to condemn and burn.[6] This scenario suggests one of the first forms of sf: the utopian or dystopian novel. The mass production of sameness can only lead to enslavement both literally and spiritually. Is this the direction that Campbell perceives that society is heading?

Another dubious trend that Herbert glimpses in society is that of Playboy sexuality: “casual, frolicsome and vastly promiscuous. It is the anonymous sex of the harem. It creates no binding loyalties, no personal attachments, no distractions from one’s primary responsibilities—which are to the company, to one’s career and social position, and to the system generally.”[7] Again, this sounds like Huxley’s or Zamyatin’s social utopia. These mindsets are the way that a dystopia may evolve.[8] The current trend of cyberpunk fiction also addresses this mentality, a danger that Stapledon predicted in Star Maker, where the race of Other Men are controlled through radio bliss. This technology, much like virtual reality today, might come at a time when humanity is insufficiently mature enough to control it.[9] Plugging oneself into the blissbox is much more amenable than facing the coldness of reality. This precipitates still another concern of the modern age: isolation. When we are all plugged into our blissboxes, there ceases to be a community. These are the concerns of the dystopian sf writer, yet they must also be addressed by the writer of epical sf.

Both our contemporary world and sf are concerned with technology. West states that society is concerned with technology and how it might remade through scientific discovery. This concern is directly addressed by sf writers in that they hypothesize what the outcome could be with the adoption of a new, world-changing discovery or invention.[10] Herbert agrees by suggesting that sf writers imagine new inventions and their benefits or banes and science produces the devices imagined.[11] The sf writer, Herbert continues, is always suggesting new, alternate possibilities that suggest the vicissitudes of societal demands and concerns.[12]


Ironically, Herbert, like Campbell, suggests that the hero of the sf epic must remove himself from society and all that it represents, including language, and, like the Zen master, he “must stand silently and point at the new thing.”[13] Yet, here we are left with two paradoxes: the hero must represent his society, but must remove himself from it to find the answers and guidance for that society, and the hero must pass beyond the realm of language itself to stand silently and point to God. The latter is paradoxical in that language is integral for the writer of the sf epic; this problem is reminiscent of Dante’s realization in Paradise that a finite language is insufficient to label the infinity of God. One must stand in awe, return to society, and attempt to share the answer.

Yet, our language has made us what we are—we define our universe through our language. Language, like science, tries to order chaos, tries to explain the ostensibly inexplicable. Is language, then, inherently deceptive? Can we only understand the universe through linguistic dichotomies: “us and them, good and bad”; or is “to be” not the question? Is science, then, not the answer?

Science, states Finer, makes the transcendence of the unities of space, time, and being possible (243). sf bestows humanity with a new “formula for plausibility,” a new popular faith.[14] Science, then, makes possible the discovery of that New World, that mystery that lies beyond our known world. This idea, suggests Finer, could be our contemporary mythology, that “unimaginable lodge of solitary thinking” that Homer saw in the Mediterranean and that we see in outer space.[15] Therefore, the technology that allows such discovery and exploration replaces the machinery of the ancient epic: a starship is this age’s Zeus.


  1. Campbell, Joseph (2004) [1949]. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. p. 359.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Campbell 2004, p. 359.
  3. Lewis, C. S. (2012). An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. p. 30.
  4. Herbert, Frank (1974). "Science Fiction and a World in Crisis". Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow. New York: Harper and Row. p. 79.
  5. Herbert 1974, p. 78.
  6. Lewis 2012, p. 30.
  7. Herbert 1974, p. 72.
  8. Herbert 1974, p. 71.
  9. McCarthy, Patrick A. (1981). "Star Maker: Olaf Stapledon's Divine Tragedy". Science Fiction Studies. 8 (3): 269.
  10. West, Robert H. (1961). "Science Fiction and Its Ideas". The Georgia Review. 15 (fall): 278.
  11. Herbert 1974, p. 70.
  12. Herbert 1974, p. 75.
  13. Herbert 1974, p. 82.
  14. Finer, S. E. (1954). "A Profile of Science Fiction". Sociological Review. December (2): 242.
  15. Finer 1954, p. 243.