There is a long tradition of science fiction protagonists being in a very specific set of occupations. Many of the earliest examples were scientists, or so-called “gentleman explorers.” Think of Dr. Victor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Phileas Fogg from Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, and the Time Traveler from The Time Machine are other notable examples. The nature of these characters and their careers made it easy to create a fantastical situation or world that totally defined the expectations of readers.
As technologies progressed, and new instruments of war began to reveal their awesome, devastating power, more and more science fiction protagonists were in the military, or had a military background. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter fought in the American Civil War. The crew that intercepts Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama is full of military personnel and scientists. This approach to speculative storytelling uses the training and experience of military protagonists to get them through ordeals that ordinary readers could never face. It still remains a popular story mechanism. The fairly recent Stargate shows were based around a top-secret U.S. Air Force program.
Probably the most common type of protagonist is the one that is somehow employed by the government, or a secretive, higher organization. Many science fiction shows follow this pattern. Almost all Star Trek main crew members across all the series are in the employ of the United Federation of Planets. The Marvel show, Agents of SHIELD reveals the occupation of its characters in the title.
I’m not saying this to dismiss any of these characters or stories. In fact, I’m a fan of most of them. I think it’s exciting to find patterns like this, because it opens up new questions to be explored by sci-fi writers and creators, such as: where are all the everyday people?
The world today is full of strangeness: new scientific discoveries; technologies that seem like magic to the lay person. It doesn’t take a scientist or a starship captain to explore strange, new worlds anymore. There is room, now, to look at what it means to be a suburban mom, an inner-city kid, a barista, a mechanic, or a traveling musician in a science fiction context.
This isn’t a completely new concept. Ray Bradbury was known for putting a speculative edge on everyday situations and characters in his short story collections. Read “There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles for an eerie tale of a futuristic suburban family that feels almost more at home in a modern anthology than one from 1950. Comedic shows such as Lost in Space and Alf also brought the extraordinary into ordinary living rooms.
But what about when the extraordinary is ordinary? Those are the questions I see answered more and more in current speculative media. What would it be like to live in a horror-trope filled, Lovecraftian small town in the desert? Listen to Welcome to Night Vale to find out. How would you survive as the only human on an intergalactic cooking show? Read the comic Space Battle Lunchtime for the answers.
We live in a world full of strange and extraordinary things that previous generations could never have dreamed of. All you need to do is tip the scales a bit – exaggerate a small element of modern, everyday life, and you get a fascinating and compelling speculative fiction concept. As they say, the future is now.