Everyone has different ideas on what makes a hero. For me, more than looks, a cool manner, great taste in clothes, castles, and cars, is the seduction of competence.
I love a hero who gets things done that need doing.
When I was a kid, Superman was the most prevalent hero: strong, handsome, good, honest, loyal, and red-white-and-blue patriotic. By the sixties, when I was a teen, the cynical, alienated anti-hero had become popular. I got as tired of heroes who were no different than the villains as I had been with the old two-fisted manly man whose women were helpless, waiting to be rescued before they gratefully devoted their lives to his domestic comfort, because of course there weren’t any heroic women. How could a woman be heroic when the way to resolve any kind of conflict was to launch into a long, drawn out fist or gun fight?
In my kid reading, one of my favorite heroes was Pippi Longstocking. She got to live on her own, do what she liked, she had all kinds of powers, including super strength if bad guys tried to grab her or her kid friends, but she was always kind, and always did the right thing. Gradually I lost interest in Pippi, not that I ever disliked the books. But I reread them less frequently, and it took a few more years to realize why: because Pippi was always cheerfully in control of things. She might leave chaos in her wake, but she knew what she was doing and where she was going.
When, at fourteen, I first encountered Frodo of the Nine Fingers, I had a new hero. Compared to Pippi, Frodo hadn’t much to offer in the physical realm: he wasn’t super strong, he wasn’t a leader, and at the end, he’d even lost his home. But his emotional battle, his inner strength outshone that of kings and war heroes.
My fictional heroes now are not necessarily those with physical prowess (though I do enjoy a good swashbuckling battle), they are the ones whose inner conflicts are at least as great as the physical challenges, and one of my top faves is Miles Vorkosigan, the short, hunchbacked, spindly hero in Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera series.
It would have been easy to make her Barrayarans the villains in her stories. After centuries of isolation, the Barrayarans were reunited with far-flung humanity; at first at a disadvantage as a feudal society dominated by a military caste, they took to space flight (and modern weapons) with terrifying enthusiasm. Bujold’s central characters are at the heart of the imperial government, not just showing but making sympathetic the strain between the male-dominated rigid hierarchy based on martial skill and the (relatively) leveled playing field of high tech. But the past still shapes the culture, which centers around the tall, strong, martially skilled male. Into this atmosphere Miles is born, damaged severely in utero—and determined to earn his place in the Barrayaran world by his wits.
Bringing me to Miles’ family. He did not spring in brilliant isolation from a set of dullards. We first meet his parents in the absorbing duology Shards of Honor and Barrayar (I think now joined as Cordelia’s Honor): Miles’ father is a military hero—smart, logical, and unswervingly loyal and honest—his mother loathes the military mindset, but has the great gift of appreciating people as individuals, whatever their background. And through the succeeding novels, you can see traces of both parents in Miles’ interactions, even when the parents themselves are not onstage for the entirety of the book. Eventually Miles discovers (typically, the most lethal way possible) that he has a clone brother. How the family deals with a clone raised to murder the family from within is fascinating, in both Brothers in Arms and the award-winning Mirror Dance.
Miles is frequently his own worst enemy, but he has a great deal of formidable competition in a variety of rivals, difficult personalities, and outright (and terrifying) villains. He has no physical strength—frequently his bones break—so he has to rely entirely on wit, cunning, observation, and charisma. Smart heroes who are insufferable in their superiority are not appealing to me, especially when they have no sense of humor, especially about themselves; I remember in high school, when a segment of my fellow students were avidly devouring Ayn Rand for the intellectually superior heroes, I checked a couple of them out. Politics aside, I soon came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t want to be in a room with these speechifying rantypants for more than five minutes. Miles I would follow around for hours—days, weeks—if I could survive the collateral damage.
After a hiatus of a decade, Miles is back. His latest adventure is called CryoBurn. In spite of the relatively serious subject matter (cryogenic freezing) some readers will regard this as a lighter book, especially as much of it is seen through the eyes of a child, and because Miles’s wits are not tested to the limits for most of this book. Bujold explores all the ramifications of this particular piece of futuretech, from the comedic to the horrifying, legal to spiritual. The cryogenic center of the story seems like an arbitrary subject, isolated . . . until it isn’t. Bujold often writes story arcs in pairs, one light, and the next picking up on threads established in the easier adventure then yanking them inexorably into sometimes excruciating knotwork. I am really looking forward to what happens next.