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Entry updated 22 September 2018. Tagged: Theme.


The division of people into simple archetypes of good and bad, Heroes and villains, has always been stronger in popular literature than in more serious fiction; indeed, the essence of the serious novel of character has ever been to explore the shades of grey between the moral absolutes of black and white. Thus sf's villains are mainly associated with Pulp-magazine sf, not just in the post-1926 specialist sf magazines but in the pulp magazines generally from the 1890s onwards. The history of villainy in popular literature of this sort is sociologically fascinating in the way that it reflects the fears and bigotries of the societies that produced it, especially insofar as commercial fiction is generally written in response to a known popular demand.

UK sf during 1890-1920 (and to some extent later) was notably xenophobic: foreigners were not to be trusted. The same was true to a lesser extent in the USA, whose East Coast cities were by now a melting-pot of different national and racial backgrounds, to the alarm of the more conservative. Antisemitic views were expressed surprisingly seldom, although the capitalist villain of George Allan England's The Golden Blight (18 May-22 June 1912 Cavalier; 1916) is a Jew, and M P Shiel's stories often contain Jewish villains, although Shiel himself was ambiguous on the subject, and was sympathetic to Zionist aspirations. Better known are the Yellow Peril books, and here Shiel figures largely, with The Yellow Danger (5 February-18 June 1898 Short Stories as "The Empress of the Earth"; 1898) and The Dragon (1913; rev vt The Yellow Peril 1929). Floyd Gibbons's The Red Napoleon (1929) features a Mongol world-conqueror. The most famous Oriental villain of all was of course Sax Rohmer's Dr Fu-Manchu, the slant-eyed super-machinator set on world domination.

With Fu-Manchu we enter the arena of the hero-versus-villain pulp magazines of the 1930s, some, such as Dr Yen Sin and The Mysterious Wu Fang, modelled directly on Rohmer's work. By the 1930s the hero-vs-villain confrontation had developed into a simple formula, still popular long after World War Two, as in Ian Fleming's James Bond books. A small group of fighters for right, with the aid of highly trained reflexes and an armoury of superscientific devices, stands off a variety of almost indistinguishable Mad Scientists and/or ambitious businessmen and politicians who plan to conquer all. The best-known sf archetype is Doc Savage, but Captain Hazzard, Captain Zero, Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds, the Spider and The Avenger were all cast in the same mould. Hero magazines were more popular than villain magazines; the latter included Doctor Death, The Octopus and The Scorpion. Although the pulps are dead, the great success of Marvel Comics in the 1960s was built on the same formula, with the villains as nasty as ever – although the heroes, in this less straightforward age, were more introspective.

Many popular heroes have a favourite regular villain, as with Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty (whose appearances are far more numerous in Sequels by Other Hands than in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon), Sapper's Bull-Dog Drummond and Carl Peterson (replaced after his elimination by his wife Irma Peterson), Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless, or Doctor Who and such favourite foes as the Daleks and Cybermen. Superheroes and their ilk tend to have a rotating roster of regular opponents: Batman's most notable nemesis is the insanely capricious Joker, while Superman regularly faces his Mad Scientist foes Lex Luthor and Brainiac (sometimes in collaboration).

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 may have been seen by some in the USA as a retrospective justification of the Yellow Peril stories – and by cynics, conversely, as the realization of a self-fulfilling prophecy – but pulp sf of World War Two and immediately afterwards tended to substitute brutal European-style fascists in place of wily Orientals. Eric Frank Russell wrote many amusing stories of caricature-Teutonic aliens being thwarted in their myopic militarism by nimble-witted heroes working almost alone. Far more interesting were the villains of Cold-War sf in the 1950s, when the USA evinced extreme anxiety over the "communist menace" (many of these stories are discussed under Paranoia). The day of the individual villain was in decline; he had given way to the group-villain, often symbolized, indeed, in the form of a Hive Mind. The fear of communism was frequently expressed as a loathing for an expansionist movement in which individuality was subjugated to the demands of the mass. Thus in Robert A Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990) the villains are indistinguishable from one another. In this case they are Aliens, and this points up a difference between sf and most other genres: although sf heroes are usually human, the villains may easily be Monsters, Aliens, Robots or Supermen. However, a little analysis of what sort of monster or superman the villain is often shows that there is some readily identifiable human analogue, or at least human fear, involved.

The Robot destroying everything in its path is usually simply our fear of Technology writ large. It is interesting that, after a long period of quiescence – partly as a result of Isaac Asimov's Robot series, in which robots were depicted as decent, occasionally to the point of saintliness – in the 1980s the killer-robot story (and the anti-technology Luddite story generally) returned to the Cinema, where it gained phenomenal popularity. The cinema is the closest modern equivalent in its values and narrative structures to pulp fiction, and it feeds very much the same appetites, at least at its lower levels. It is in the cinema, in Comics, on Television and in Heroic Fantasy that today's hero-vs-villain stories are mostly found. The return of the anti-technology theme, exemplified by many of the films of Michael Crichton and John Badham, may represent fears related to those that have brought the rise of ecological factions to a position of importance in world politics.

In written sf, the heyday of the sf villain was over by the 1960s-1970s. Villains still exist, of course, but they cannot generally be so easily categorized; very often they remain faceless: behind-the-scenes manipulators, politicians, militarists, ad-men, commercial interests, corporate polluters of the environment working at a distance or through bureaucracies. This reflects a growing fear in the real world that we are all filed and docketed on a Computer databank somewhere, and have no way of identifying the enemy out front. In the USA it could be called the Watergate syndrome; after Watergate the number of films about government conspiracies notably increased (see Paranoia). Invisible pullers of strings need not be grey or boring villains, however, and Jack Vance's five Demon Princes in his Demon Princes series are for the most part satisfyingly melodramatic, as are the nine immortals who run things in Philip José Farmer's A Feast Unknown (1969), Lord of the Trees (1970) and The Mad Goblin (1970). A common variant of the unseen manipulator as villain is the AI, as in William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy, in The Difference Engine (1990) by Gibson with Bruce Sterling, and in Dan Simmons's Hyperion books.

The type of villains produced in Genre SF depends to a degree on the type of sf in question. In Hard SF the villains are often those who fear progress and doggedly oppose it, while in the New Wave it was more likely to be the technocrats themselves who were the villains, mindlessly calling for "growth" regardless of the sociological consequences. Individual sf writers are naturally liable to incorporate any sort of personal or political resentment or distaste into their creation of villains – Heinlein often laid the blame on flabby liberals, for example – but no useful generalization can be made about villainy at this level.

An occasional amalgam in sf is the hero-villain, an imaginative territory staked out by Alfred Bester in the figures of Ben Reich and Gully Foyle, the protagonists of his first two novels, who are further discussed in Antiheroes. Villainy generated by the self but unknown to the self has of course been a theme of the Horror in SF subgenre since Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), if not earlier. This theme has always remained popular, as in Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" (August 1954 F&SF) and, from the cinema, the Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet (1956) and the telekinetic superbeing who does not recognize his own malign powers in The Power (1967). [PN/DRL]

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