The Stereotype of the “Nice Guy” in Science Fiction

In her article “In Space, Nice Guys Finish Last,” Mary Roach argued that the most renowned and beloved astronauts (or cosmonauts) evince a laundry list of positive personality attributes, including humility, empathy, and good-naturedness. With these traits in mind, I wonder whether Roach’s axiom about the best qualities for space heroes applies to science fiction protagonists. If we take the characters from the works we have read as examples, it seems fairly evident that, in science fiction, the nice guys who embody the traits listed above may not even exist. In fact, the lack of the quality in Yuri Gagarin on which Roach focused most—humility—seems to be the downfall of many of the characters in our readings. Again and again, we have read about the quintessential mad scientist who, in his arrogance and desire to achieve God-like status, oversteps his bounds and transgresses natural laws to supplant life and/or labor through technological advances.

We’ve seen this hubris and its consequences throughout this semester, whether it arises in Dostoevsky’s “Ridiculous Man” corrupting the untarnished society he enters, Lord Charlesbury’s decision to channel the sun’s rays into a liquid energy substance, Rossum’s creation of automaton robots to replace human labor, Persikov and Feit’s harnessing of the Red Ray to animate and amplify life in other animals, Bondy’s decision to monetize the Newts and enslave them as industrial tools, Simon Bauer’s choice to value wealth and leisure over the virtues of hard work and labor, or Trurl and Klapaucius’s continuous misadventures in trying to create machines to replace human activities. However, most of these characters, unlike the cosmonaut Roach discussed, remain tethered to Earth. Perhaps they would be less equipped to traverse the universe because of their arrogance. Perhaps the fact that our characters don’t conform to Roach’s model of the perfect space explorer and technological innovator even makes sense given the eventual repercussions of their meddling behaviors. Because misplaced pride is so habitually punished, Roach’s axiom may hold true; while we may not see “nice guys” in many of our readings, we implicitly accept that humility is a desirable attribute and an effective way to avoid the devastation our more problematic characters bring about. If we look at our actual space explorers (see: Red Star, Aelita, The Andromeda Nebula, and more), we see characters with much more virtue and positive attributes. While their journeys never go as planned, their ultimate goals often feel in line with Roach’s theories.

While Roach noted, “nice guys finish first,” I wonder if that truism even applies to women in science fiction. Oftentimes, as we have discussed again and again, it seems like women don’t even show up to the race. For example, in Solaris, we witnessed the ocean-generated version of Rheya becoming more and more human, and she showed many of the traits that Roach valued, yet characters like Rheya are rarely lionized, and male figures often take center stage in these narratives. If this trend were to reverse, I wonder if we would see characters more in line with Roach’s model; because the female figures (despite their frequently two-dimensional nature) more often demonstrate the qualities that led cosmonauts like Gagarin to achieve lasting fame, I would be interested to see whether we read any stories that incorporate female heroines who are rewarded for their positive personalities at the semester’s close.