Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
Lists used to be for laundry. We made lists to remind ourselves of the tedious details of daily life that needed attention. 1) Send a thank-you to Aunt Pat for the Christmas pajamas. 2) Water the bougainvillea! et cetera. In the digital age, we make lists to entertain ourselves. Now lists exist to divert us from the tedium of everyday life.
The Top 10 Serial Killers! 19 Things That Happen When You Don’t Wear Makeup! 23 Bugs You’ve Never Seen Before! Literally, the lists go on. Nothing escapes our collective taxonomy when it comes to procrastination. BuzzFeed exists precisely to fill this need we have to rank and categorize our interests.
Today, I’m attempting to take back the list. Well, maybe I don’t want to take it back, but I want to make this list my own. Ultimately it’s not a big list, and it’s not necessarily ranked. But what follows are a few of the most memorable characters from speculative fiction. There are so many I could have chosen, and undoubtedly you’ll have your own, but these characters stand out for me for a variety of reasons.
The first character I thought of was Horselover Fat from Phillip K. Dick’s VALIS. Fat, who is a stand-in for Dick himself, is contacted by the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, which reveals to him secrets of life and existence on Earth. Popular lore concerning Dick and VALIS suggests that the author wrote the book based on his own real-life experience with an extracorporeal intelligence. The “truth” behind the story is perhaps immaterial, but it does lend the book a creepy authenticity. As a work of fiction it fits squarely into the secret history, shadow organizational paranoia of books like Foucault’s Pendulum and The Illuminatus Trilogy, but it’s got a sharper edge if that’s possible. It’s a little more dangerous.
Speaking of danger, the next character is Takeishi Kovacs from Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan. Imagine Kovacs as the love child of Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and William Gibson. Kovacs is believable as a far-future detective. He hits all the right notes. His cynicism is rooted in the extensive experience of venality and corruption of the outside world. He is “good,” but he has seen enough in his time to know that being “good” is largely a mask.
For my next character I ask that you grant me a little leeway. Oskar Matzerath is the narrator of Gunter Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum. I ask for leeway, because The Tin Drum is not properly science fiction or fantasy, but it is weird and that’s enough for me. Oskar is a sort of twisted Peter Pan—a child in Nazi-era Germany who wants no part of the adult world. Oskar is brilliant and maniacal. The novel itself is a picaresque—it moves episodically, without much consideration for plot, through Oskar’s life and the many outlandish situations he finds himself in.
I’ve always enjoyed picaresque heroes, so I will add “Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds to my list. Jack is one of the main characters of The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. Those novels aren’t exactly picaresques, but Quicksilver, the first title in the series, certainly draws its inspiration from the tradition. Jack is the pícaro, or rogue, from which the style of novel draws its name, and he fits the bill quite well. Despite his ignorance of society and his rough and tumble life, Jack gets by on his wits and undeniable charm. And every adventure he finds himself in seems more outrageous than the last.
I realize that I don’t have a single female character or author on this rather short list, but it’s my list and it’s my memory. In a perfect world, a great female character would have leaped, fully formed, into my head like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Alas, the world is not perfect. But it might be, someday, once we’ve compiled all our lists and put the world in order.