Normal Heroes

As I read through old Appendix N works and old pulps, I noticed a very curious pattern, even in the fantasy novels: a near-total lack of superpowered heroes.

Even in the most fantastical settings, few heroes had anything like the panoply of abilities that modern superheroes have. At best, you would have a John Carter granted a slight power boost by Mars’ lesser gravity, [EDIT (9/2/2017): It’s more than this; see the comment below.] Tarzan with uncanny physical acumen or a Holger Danske knowledgable about scientific things that medieval people wouldn’t be, or a Viking warrior wielding a cursed sword. But nobody in classic sci-fi and fantasy wields some innate enhanced power like a weapon to mow down small-fry villains while clawing their way to the big boss; we know this to be true because works influenced by the classic books, such as the original Star Wars trilogy, the Gorean Saga, and the Redwall series, often did their heroes in this way.

I have a simple theory as to why the classic works were written that way: it is because they were written at a time before visual media came to dominate sci-fi and fantasy.

Before video games, television anime, and superhero films, authors had only one thing to influence them: real life. Even the films and TV of the pulp era and beyond tended toward non-fantastical depictions of life, rather than over-the-top fantasy. Thus, people wanting to write about strange new worlds and unusual vistas only had their own life experience and personal knowledge to look upon, and the authors who influenced them were similarly constrained. Superpowers? Those were for children’s books.

For example, it is clear that the Gorean Saga was written well before the advent of the Japanese video game RPG: Tarl Cabot does not attempt to end slavery on Gor, nor does he try to overthrow the Priest-Kings. Had it been written like an RPG, Tarl would be a teenager, he would have a party accompanying him (inclyding a former slave girl), he would subvert the slavery system at every turn, and the climax of the saga would be a battle with Sarm of the Priest-Kings (and Misk, another Priest-King, would have joined the party.) Once Sarm is defeated, the Priest-Kings’ system of control over Gor’s technological development would be torn down as they learn the error of their ways. In other words, it would be like a stereotypical Final Fantasy game.

Eric John Stark never had to rely on some special ability to defeat his enemies; he could do so under the constraints of normal humanity. Likewise, David Innes relied only on his wits and whatever fighting ability he could muster to get him through Pellucidar. There was simply no context for something like an optic blast or a Kamehameha; pulling out such an ability would have seemed like cheating to get the hero out of a predicament, or fantasizing about steamrolling one’s enemies without a problem.

Perhaps that is the answer; without superpowers, even small-fry enemies can harm the hero. Thus, the hero has to fight intelligently, and if fighting is not possible, use social skills or other knowledge to thwart the enemy. Thus, the hero can be heroic without being some superbeing who can only be stopped by other superbeings.

None of this is to say that modern superpowered fiction is awful; indeed, I write, read, and watch quite a bit of it. However, the way fantasy heroes were written in the past is instructive, and it can make current-day heroes more engaging.

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18 Responses to Normal Heroes

  1. JimFear138 says:

    This is something I noticed in Planet of Adventure as well. There’s one (1) scene that I can remember where he defeats a bunch of Chasch by zapping their heads off with a laser, but after that Adam Reith never uses superpowers or even much high technology. I think Vance realized that keeping that thing around would make him too overpowered for most of the people on Tschai to handle. After that he uses his fists, swords, and his wits to get into and out of predicaments and fights. It kept things manageable, and made him seem like more of an everyman, even though he certainly wasn’t. He even has to use stealth in the last book when they’re in the Pnume city avoiding the bugmen.
    It’s important, I think, to have your heroes be reasonable. This is part of what made the X-Men work so well. Some were unreasonably overpowered, like Storm, but most of them had one power that made the overall group stronger, so it was believable when they got in trouble because someone had decided to be all pissy and run off on their own. I enjoy the spectacle fighters for the most part, but it does get a bit ridiculous when ancient all-powerful gods are appearing and the hero has to attain the highest level of power that was formerly believed to be a myth to defeat him, and then next season there’s an even-more-all-powerfuller god and the hero has to level up beyond god-mode to defeat him, and so on and so forth. It gets very silly very quickly, and keeping a series like that running for long stretches while keeping it entertaining is a serious challenge.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      A good point regarding power escalation; it matches with my own view. That kind of thing makes conflicts less interesting to watch.

  2. Bob W says:

    Rawli, I think that your assessment of the modern superhero tale is accurate. I would like to point out, though, that John Carter has more than a slight power boost. He jumps to second and third story balconies easily. He one-punches a Thark warrior and kills him, and repeatedly defeats hordes of Green, Red, White, Black and Yellow Martians. He tears through White Apes and Plant Men that all Barsoomians are afraid of. He is not just an above average human. Oh, and he’s ageless. He is a super-human.

  3. Donna Speare says:

    As you note, limiting the hero’s powers makes for a better story — consider how krypton was invented by the writers of the Superman radio show so they could put Supes into convincing danger, which worked so well that the comics adapted the device. But also, consider that the audience can more readily identify with a “normal” hero. Nominally, Tarzan’s extraordinary abilities are the result of his strange upbringing (although, practically, one might reasonably question whether that would explain the immensity of his superior abilities). We can identify with Tarzan because he is an “ordinary” human made extraordinary through (unlikely) circumstances, not magic or super-science; we can daydream about sailing through the jungle, swinging branch to branch, just like him — if we only had the time and opportunity to put in the effort to train ourselves properly: a notion supported in the novels by the fact that Jane, coming to Tarzan’s jungle as an adult, learns to fend for herself almost as well as he does, allowing for her late start in that life and the limits of female musculature (oops, I won’t be getting a job at Google, either).

    “Tarl Cabot does not attempt to end slavery on Gor, nor does he try to overthrow the Priest-Kings. Had it been written like an RPG…”

    …and been written by someone else — let’s face it: Tarl Cabot does not attempt to end slavery on Gor because Prof. Lange likes it that way.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      That’s another important point: notice that it was Tarzan that became Burroughs’ most famous work, though John Carter had a sizable fandom in the past.

  4. Mary says:

    I had great fun trying to work out how to curb a superheroine without making the three scenes revolving about her powers that I wanted impossible.

    At least now she can exist without making all other superheroes redundant.

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  6. Misha Burnett says:

    I think that your thesis that John Carter is not superhuman in his strength and agility is a valid one, because, like Superman, he’s not superhuman on his own world. It’s the sub-Earth gravity of Barsoom that enables Carter to do these things.

    That is, I think, an element of early portal fantasy that has been mislaid over the years. Buck Rogers wasn’t anyone special by 20th Century standards, he just seemed so when compared to the degraded level of humanity in the 25th Century. For that matter, Wells’ Time Traveller follows the same pattern.

    This is a non-trivial issue. There was an assumption in the pulps of terrestrial exceptionalism. It was taken for granted that we are living in an age of heroes and that an ordinary man taken from our world would naturally be extraordinary in any other universe. Readers were invited to identify themselves as the product of an advanced culture among barbarians.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      A good point about “terrestrial exceptionalism.” The Japanese continue that tradition in their isekai genre, though such works don’t always have the best writing.

      • Misha Burnett says:

        And it occurs to me that this is exactly why Lord Foul’s Bane and so many of its imitators couldn’t hold my interest. Thomas Covenant was so clearly less advanced than the average inhabitant of The Land (or whatever it was called.)

        Portal fantasy tends to act as a trial of Everyman–an ordinary person from our world is judged by the standards of another. These days the assumption is that our world is ethically stunted (at the very least) and instead of being a light in the darkness, the transported person is a backward rube who must be educated in real values.

        • Rawle Nyanzi says:

          Took the words right out of my mouth. Today, the assumption is that the other world (alien planet, other dimension, etc.) is more morally or technologically advanced. Oddly enough, you see this “modern” attitude in the Gor novels, where Goreans are treated as better people than Earthlings due to their system of sexual slavery.

          • JD Cowan says:

            Wow, this is a great conversation.

            If you had someone transported from the modern Western world to a fantastical one in this day and age you would be labeled as anything from a bigot to a colonialist to the other people’s being the “X” race/culture in disguise. It couldn’t happen.

            I would assume that’s why you don’t see them so much anymore.

          • Rawle Nyanzi says:

            I don’t think it’s quite at that level; rather, the other world will be shown to be “better” in order to challenge the hero. I’m fine with such an approach — good stories require conflict — but the cultural context has changed.

          • Mary says:

            I transported someone — four someones — from this world to another in The Princess Goes Into the Forest.

            Of course, then I threw away most of the advantages the portal fantasy elements gives you. It was fun. 0:)

        • Mary says:

          There’s nothing wrong per se with the main character of a portal fantasy finding it a learning experience. The Phantom Tollbooth anyone?

          Of course that escapes the “more advanced” condition easily.

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