Some of the most loved and famous heroes of modern times have leapt from the pages of epic sci-fi classics and into our imaginations. It’s no surprise that four of the top five grossing films of all time are science fiction blockbusters featuring larger-than-life heroes and their equally heroic sidekicks. Paul Atreides of Dune and Jonnie Goodboy Tyler of Battlefield Earth are no exception and arguably set the mold for today’s heroes of page and screen.
The film remake of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune, reset for release in October 2021, inspired me to re-read the novel (along with millions of others). There is a real growing excitement as to how this sci-fi classic will be re-imagined by Director Denis Villeneuve. Dune 2021 is projected to be very different than David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation. I can hardly wait to see for myself just how different. I love this movie trailer:
In the first two parts of this three-part series, we explored the worldbuilding and futuristic technology of Dune and Battlefield Earth (another of my favorite science fiction novels). In part three, we’ll look at how these fiction heroes figure into the equation in their quest to prevail and win the day. If you have not yet read Battlefield Earth, you can read the first 48 pages or listen to the first hour for free (warning: you will be hooked).
What Makes a Hero?
But first, we should ask ourselves, what makes a hero?
Well, that depends… The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that heroes chose their calling and actively sought out challenges to prove their hero-ness. They had superhero (or nearly so) abilities which made them practically god-like. The normal person couldn’t hope to be a hero and instead worshipped from afar. When catastrophes happened, it was the hero who saved the day while his adoring public cheered him on. Probably the most well-known hero from Roman mythology was Hercules (or Heracles from the Greek). He was again immortalized for recent generations in the Disney classic by the same name. Who doesn’t recall young Hercules going from zero to hero to zero and back again in his quest to regain his immortality and place among the gods? His trials and triumphs showed us that true heroes had very human qualities we could all aspire to.
More recently, the concept of heroes has taken on a more down-to-earth character. Our heroes are flawed, quirky, and often troubled, more like the everyday person and someone to identify with. Our modern hero and heroine don’t seek out challenges so much as they come and find him (or her). They don’t believe they’re necessarily up to the task, but the hero doesn’t back down when push comes to shove. And with courage that outmatches his fear, with personal ability and not a small amount of luck, the hero prevails. These are hero traits.
Hero examples from ancient myth and legend or modern literature are clearly a cut above the rest.
But there’s one more important factor that makes the hero a standout, his friends. They say that “birds of a feather flock together,” right? So, it makes sense that the friends of a hero are awesome in their own right. But it takes a strong leader to pull them all together. I’m instantly reminded of the ragtag band of renegade heroes led by Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, whose often laughable alias “Star-Lord,” still manages to save the day with a little help from a warrior inmate, a tree-like humanoid with a one-sentence vocabulary, a gorgeous green assassin, and a genetically engineered raccoon (but don’t call him that). Only in sci-fi…
Where do Jonnie Goodboy Tyler and Paul Atreides fall on the scale of epic heroes? Hercules going solo, or Guardians of the Galaxy gang? Maybe, just maybe, it’s a mix of both.
Each of our sci-fi heroes in Dune and Battlefield Earth plays a role in these hero journey examples.
A Hero for a Post-Apocalyptic Earth
One can see in Jonnie Goodboy Tyler of Battlefield Earth a young Hercules striving to live up to his considerable potential though he doesn’t know it at first. Is it fate or intuition that makes him shun getting water that others in his ruined village do, to their detriment? He doesn’t know there is radiation contamination from the decaying bombs of a thousand-year-old battle poisoning the other villagers when they pass a particular spot to get the water. But he had always refused to get the water. As a result, he grows strong and healthy and able to look at things differently from that experience.
But Jonnie isn’t just looking out for himself. He knows that something is sickening the villagers. He rails inwardly at the injustice of his family and friends in the village fading away and dying young when he can see during his explorations that the animals on the plain are fat and healthy. He must move his village somewhere safe. And that is where his herculean task and the heroic adventure of Battlefield Earth begins, with the determination to help those close to him, and even some he doesn’t necessarily like.
Of course, we need to consider the hero and villain. Soon he is captured by Terl, the Psychlo Security Chief for planet Earth. He has a grand plan to get rich and leave this “horns-awful” planet for a life of luxury back at home on Psychlo (the Psychlos are sadistic alien invaders who now dominate Earth and much of the galaxy). Terl’s discovered gold in the dangerous windy chasm in the Rockies. But there’s radiation in the area, which makes Psychlo breathe gas explode. Quite deadly! Terl needs a crew of air-breathers to mine that gold and captures Jonnie to do his bidding.
Terl thinks that Man is just another dumb animal to be trained and ordered about and then dispensed with when the task is done. He soon learns that Jonnie is a different breed of animal who increasingly requires leverage to do Terl’s bidding. Terl is too arrogant and blinded by greed to see that Jonnie Goodboy Tyler is actually learning everything possible about the Psychlos and what actually happened to his people so long ago. To gain leverage, Terl also captures Jonnie’s sweetheart Chrissie and her little sister, Pattie, which puts into Jonnie a cold resolve. He will take back his planet or die trying. He doesn’t know if it can be done, but he vows to try.
When Terl takes Jonnie to Scotland to “recruit” more manpower for his plan, Jonnie meets the Scots and discovers a group ready to fight to the death to follow Jonnie and free Earth. They see in him, and especially in the plight of Chrissie and Pattie, a hero who transcends more than a concern for his own village and the damsel in distress (and her sister). Jonnie inspires them to care about the fate of all remaining mankind on the planet. And it’s a cause they all wholeheartedly get behind. They are sure that Jonnie must have some “Scot” in him. Soon, he becomes “MacTyler.” To explain how he flew from America when only the demons (the Psychlos) can fly, Jonnie said, “I own a demon.”
Here is the hero quote from the audiobook (one of the best sci-fi audiobooks I have heard):
Jonnie soon has 51 first recruits out of 1,000 willing souls, including several “Jonnie-lookalikes” and Robert the Fox, a veteran of many raids. But the Scots, all heroes within, want more recruits to go on this dangerous quest. So, Jonnie’s team becomes two pipers; five widows of “indeterminate age” to cook and sew and care for the wounded; a schoolmaster; a parson; a historian to write it all down, and several more young men, until there are 83 courageous souls flying back to America with Jonnie to tackle the impossible odds. This is the backup team that makes it possible for the hero to have even a slim chance at victory.
A Hero for the Desert Planet Arrakis
Similarly, but in a vastly different environment, young Paul Atreides from the noble house of Atreides on planet Caladan, has an unusually keen sense of intuition. He has honed it through drilling and training from his mother, a Bene Gesserit witch. He is also highly adept as a fighter and strategist, with training from his father’s (Duke Leto’s) loyal officers. His mental abilities have drawn the Bene Gesserit sisterhood’s interest, who are predicting the appearance of the Kwisatz Haderach as a result of their ages-long, politically motivated breeding program. This is a male Bene Gesserit “whose organic mental powers would bridge space and time” and be able to go where the sisters could not. They are afraid that Paul is this Kwisatz Haderach, but come at the wrong time for their purposes because his mother Jessica disobeyed their orders to only have daughters.
Paul is visited by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Bene Gesserit and truthsayer to the Emperor, who wishes to test him. She subjects him to the extreme pain of the gom jabbar and surprisingly (to her) he passes the test. During this visit, Paul also learns that his father’s life is in danger.
Soon after, Paul travels to Arrakis (also called Dune) with his family. Almost immediately, they are subject to attacks from agents of the Harkonnens. Paul saves the life of the Fremen head housekeeper, Shadout Mapes, from a deadly hunter seeker weapon originally meant for him. She then tells him in repayment that there’s a traitor in his father’s house. (spoiler alert) Later, Duke Leto, Paul, and Jessica are separately captured through the efforts of traitor Dr. Yueh, a mentat (supposedly incorruptible) and Duke Leto’s personal physician. Although he has sealed the Duke’s fate, Dr. Yueh arranges for Paul and his mother to escape.
Finally, through luck or fate (or both), Paul finds himself in the Dune desert with his mother, looking for shelter from the harsh water-starved terrain, the giant dune worms (sandworms), and pursued by his enemies. There he encounters unlikely allies in the Fremen, who have heard in advance of Paul’s kindness to Shadout Mapes. They are looking for their savior of legend and find him in Paul, or Muad’Dib, the “small mouse of the desert,” his chosen Fremen name.
Through trials and challenges, Paul proves himself worthy of joining the Fremen tribe at Sietch Tabr, and he and his mother are accepted into the group. Paul’s strange abilities continue to grow and he is increasingly seen as the one whom legend says would lead the Fremen in their crusade to change Arrakis and the known universe.
Paul is a reluctant hero. He has disturbing visions of the maybe future. He sees that leading the Fremen against Shaddam IV, the Emperor of the Known Universe, to take control of Dune and its coveted Spice, could quite possibly have cataclysmic consequences. Not the least of these include starting a religious holy war in his name that engulfs the universe. But he finds in the Fremen a strong, fiercely capable group of high integrity individuals who are determined to turn Arrakis from a desert wasteland into an eco-paradise, no matter how long it takes or what sacrifices are needed (including the destruction of the Dune Spice). And in the end, Paul Muad’Dib can’t help himself; he knows he must lead them in an attempt to defeat the power corrupted forces of the Imperium. He must try.
This is one of my favorite Dune quotes, as Paul Atreides confronts the odds, but not with fear (another hero quality):
“For the first time, Paul allowed himself to think about the real possibility of defeat—not thinking about it out of fear or because of warnings such as that of the old Reverend Mother, but facing up to it because of his own assessment of the situation.”
The Hero Unites the Elements of Sci-Fi
In both Dune and Battlefield Earth, the authors have created heroes of epic proportions. The battles they wage against their respective forces of evil have near-impossible odds. Yet both Jonnie Goodboy Tyler and Paul Muad’Dib, the young Duke Atreides, both prevail and change the future irrevocably for the better, for a time at least. It is an age-old tale, but a human one. It is not the worlds in which they find themselves nor the advanced technology available that causes these victories. These are just things waiting to be acted upon by the hero and his friends. They succeed with the help of technology, and despite the worlds they find themselves in.
This is the difference between Man and animals, or man and machine. Man is able to change his environment to aid his survival. A machine, on the other hand, a lower life form, or landscape is changed by the activity around it and chiefly by the actions of men.
In the case of the hero, this is amplified to infinity and beyond in classic sci-fi. It’s not just the Earth or Dune we’re saving or changing here, but potentially all life everywhere. It’s as if the human spirit is unwilling to imagine a corner of any galaxy where freedom from oppression cannot exist. The hero takes us there and lets us know it can be done.
In this series, we’ve compared three aspects of epic sci-fi classics: worldbuilding, future technology, and heroes. Hopefully, I’ve shown how they’re all interwoven and vital to telling the story at hand.
But what else did the authors want to say to their readers? Here’s a tiny glimpse:
When asked what message he hoped to convey in Battlefield Earth, author L. Ron Hubbard said:
“That man can survive. That is the story.
“You see, we have prepared for war with virtually everyone on this planet; but we’ve never prepared for war with aliens.…
“Now the prospect of something like this actually happening has always been laughed off as ‘fiction.’ But so has everything else SF writers took up—television, the atomic bomb, space travel—you name it.…
“I think one of the most vital measurements of a person’s life is the number of friends he or she has. And when you count them up, don’t forget to count yourself.”
—L. Ron Hubbard, Rocky Mountain News interview
Dune author Frank Herbert cautioned the reader on the problems of having power:
“There exists a limit to the force even the most powerful may apply without destroying themselves. Judging this limit is the true artistry of government. Misuse of power is the fatal sin.”
—Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah (Penguin, 2008)
And he spoke of the primary attraction of science fiction:
“It may be that the primary attraction of science fiction is that it helps us understand what it means to be human.”
—Frank Herbert, The Craft of Science Fiction
Both Dune and Battlefield Earth have stood the test of time as epic sci-fi classics and are part of the foundation of an increasingly popular genre (not to mention the unforgettable sci-fi characters!).
I urge you to read (or re-read) both Dune and Battlefield Earth. Immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic Earth and the barren water-scarce Arrakis. Fly in a drone and discover the secrets of a teleportation console. Learn the weirding way. Cheer for Jonnie and Paul to win their respective battles and, most importantly—find your inner Scot or Fremen.
Don’t forget, you can read the first 48 pages (13 chapters) or listen to the first hour free, but I am sure you will not want to stop!
What is your idea of a hero? Let me know down in the comments section.
Eva Mahoney is a writer, musician, and all-around renaissance woman with a passion for sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction, and epic thrillers—in short, great storytelling. She is currently operating out of a converted garage loft on the family farm in upstate New York while taking care of her parents and a small menagerie of pets and wild animals. In her “spare time,” she telecommutes for a large NYC law firm on the weekends, writes songs, and blogs for several causes. She dreams of a place for all people of goodwill to unite in helping to a create better world and is developing a digital platform to “make it so.” And, most importantly, she is a grandmother!