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thoughts without borders

My Favorite Villain

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The popular science fiction and fantasy website SF Signal hosts a weekly “Mind Meld” where they ask a bunch of people — editors, authors, science fiction and fantasy bloggers, and such — to answer a question. In the recent past they’ve asked for favorite scifi and fantasy movie soundtracks, thoughts on the current state of politics in science fiction, the best opening scenes, and what books everyone is looking forward to this coming year.

When I saw an email from the coordinator of the series, I was ecstatic. Finally, SF Signal wants me to contribute! Then I saw the question, “Who are your favorite villains in science fiction and fantasy?” I immediately said yes and then, just as quickly, knew I had some thinking to do. As a late-comer to genre fiction I skipped all those gripping stories as a kid. The ones that feature heinous characters. I wasn’t much of a Disney kid either so I didn’t have films to fall back on. The follow essay is not just a remembrance of a particular villain, it’s an exercise in defining villainy.

You can read what others came up with at SF Signal. There you’ll find some great essays with excellent reading suggestions. If you have a favorite villain, or guidelines for villainy, comments are open both here and at SF Signal.

MIND MELD: Who Are Your Favorite Villains In Fantasy And Science Fiction?

When I think of what makes a convincing villain, I think of stories where good and evil is clearly defined. No room for gray; the hero is infallible and the bad guy barely human.

Because I’m attracted to murky realism rather than the more exaggerated genres — superhero comics, epic fantasy, horror, pulpy spy novels — I haven’t had much first-hand experience with black and white worlds; and though Merriam-Webster defines a villain as someone who is “deliberately criminal,” the characters who are most memorable to me don’t fit the definition of villainy. Often you have a good guy with ethical fissures and a bad guy always on the verge of redemption. It’s this moral ambiguity that confuses things.

But I was determined. Before digging through my three-row-deep book shelves to go over what I’d recently read, I made it easy on myself and asked, what makes someone truly loathsome? I came up with something pretty fast: cruelty to children. Unlike the uber-fit men in comic books, their 6-packs wrapped in spandex, children are powerless: the ultimate victims.

Then I remembered, I’d just read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.

On the first page of Dahl’s surrealist classic, James, a four-year-old boy living in England, is orphaned when his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros. Up until that point he’s happy; he’s had a good life. But then everything changes; he’s sent to live with his two cruel aunts. They beat him, force him into hard labor, isolate him, and, on occasion, refuse to feed him. The first few chapters are so unsettling, I was actually angry. I saw the abuse in my head, even as it was shown through language meant for kids. With every page I wished that James would take revenge, preferably with deadly consequences.

When the two aunts were finally run over by the giant peach, I cheered. It was a satisfying demise. Those two were true villains.

Written by Gabrielle

February 23, 2012 at 8:28 am

One Response

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  1. I think the problem in much of today’s media is that there isn’t a clear hero. Everyone is equally bad or no one is particularly heroic. It’s so much easier to identify the villain if you know who the good guy is. I mean Cruella Deville is the perfect villain (Disney does know how to do it right), but in science fiction it tends to get racial. I mean, the aliens,they’re evil. How prolific! In Harry Potter we know it’s Voldemort and in Eragon we know it’s the Shade, but I think all this positive psychology in today’s world is making some of the villain’s a tad anemic.


    February 27, 2012 at 7:05 pm

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