The Omnicompetent Man in Speculative Fiction by C.C. Finlay

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

"What ever happened to the mythical omnicompetent man?"

Gordon Van Gelder, "Editorial" in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct/Nov 2000

This was my answer to Gordon's question. The first draft went to the Online Writing Workshop mailing list on September 20, 2000, as part of a discussion about the editorial. A second draft (pretty much the one you see below) appeared on the letters page of F&SF's website about a month later.

When you ask "what ever happened to the mythical omnicompetent man?" my first response is to ask "which one?" The omnicompetent man is dynamic, not just in character, but as a character type. The definition of 'competent' is a cultural construction, in this case closely tied to perceptions of masculinity. He's changed significantly across time.  More and more often, he is no longer a he.

While the omnicompetent man has his roots in all sorts of heroic literature, the specific character type emerged from the pulps. As such, he belonged to all the genres -- SF, Westerns, Mysteries. You see one type of omnicompetent man before WWI, epitomized by ERB's Tarzan. Lord Greystoke is literally a 'noble savage', at home in the jungle, a Paris drawing room, or the ruins of Opar. John Carter of Mars acquires his nobility by marrying a princess, but it amounts to the same thing. Omnicompetent is defined as much by being a gentleman, in the old meaning of the term, as it is by physical or mental prowess.

The First World War took the sheen off nobility for post-war writers. The omnicompetent man of this period lived in a grim world. Dashiell Hammett's short, fat Continental Op is in many ways the prototype of this period, a stubborn bulldog capable of outwitting or outfighting any other dog in the yard. Robert E. Howard, in Conan and his other characters, created the first fantasy world without happy endings. SF produced Doc Savage, where the qualities of Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan were combined with scientific knowledge and moral purity. Doc Savage is more upbeat than many of his pulp contemporaries, reflecting the general positivism of science. Hammett or Howard portrayed the world as it was, or how they saw it, but SF continued to put forth a vision of how it could be. But for all of these characters, there is no justice, no moral order, except for that created by their own actions.

After WWII, the omnicompetent man was transformed again. C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower has a psychological element not seen in the omnicompetent man before. He is plagued by self-doubts; it is the desire to prove himself worthy that spurs him to risk and reward. Fritz Leiber, who created Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser, had a degree in psychology. Leiber's pair of swordsmen are rogues, motivated only by their own self-interest. A simpler version of the omnicompetent man reached his peak in the 1960s with the three genre Jimmys -- James Bond, James West, and James Kirk. The psychological aspects did not translate as well to film or television. Bond and West were practically satires of the omnicompetence. The fact that Shatner played Kirk more seriously was both a strength of ST and fodder for comedians and spoofs. All of these characters, in print and film, are more overtly sexual than their predecessors. And even when they represent a higher authority, whether Queen and Parliament or the United Federation of Planets, there is no doubt that the final decisions are theirs.

Part of Heinlein's genius was continually reinventing his omnicompetent characters across these decades. His first heroes in the late '30s were independent genius engineers, like Hugo Pinero or Andrew Jackson Libby, who embodied the positivist vision of science. His heroes of the '40s -- Lazarus Long or Hamilton Felix -- were the result of genetic breeding, a hothouse aristocracy to replace the natural aristocracy proposed by another Hamilton. The juvenile books he wrote in the '50s all feature boys trying to become men and relate to women, engaging directly with the elements of masculinity and sexuality that defined other omnicompetent male characters of the period. Then in the early 1960s, Heinlein created Valentine Michael Smith and Jubal Harshaw, bringing omnicompetence to a new (alien) peak and sexuality out into the open. Heinlein's ability to adapt his characters to the evolution of the character type is one reason why his work is consistently linked to discussions of the omnicompetent man in SF.

It is worth noting that, during these five or six decades, the traits that defined 'competent' and 'man' created characters that were inevitably white (even if,in the case of Doc Savage, he was also bronze) and Anglo-American. Social changes, beginning with the civil rights movement in the '50s, the sexual empowerment of women in the '60s, and the political upheaval that culminated in the '70s with Watergate, undermined the uncritical acceptance of white male infallibility and supremacy. As young writers like Samuel R. Delaney, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Disch, and Ursula K. LeGuin (among many, many others) began to write fiction that directly engaged these issues, the traditional omnicompetent man fell by the wayside.

This is not to say that he ceased to exist in SF of the period. The year after Martin Luther King Jr gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Heinlein offered the omnicompetent Hugh Farnham of Farnham's Freehold. In Heinlein's book, heroic Americans are bombed by cheating Russians, the surviving men are castrated and enslaved by blacks, and the white women are forced to become concubines to the evil black men. (There are no black women in the book, but that's another issue.) Farnham's only weakness is his inability to do women's work, like birthing babies. The book ends with Farnham and his family with Farnham holed up in a compound that would have impressed David Koresh. (Given the timing, is it any wonder that the New Wave writers looked on Heinlein as anathema?) The traditional omnicompetent man also continued in books like Jeffrey Lord's Richard Blade series. Blade was an English secret agent who used a SFnal transport device to visit other dimensions where he screwed lusty women and thumped evil overlord types from inferior civilizations. As a result of characters like these, the traditional omnicompetent man became tainted.

The taint is easy to see in the way writers treated the character type. In historical fiction, George McDondald Frasier created Flashman (1969). On the surface, Flashman is the most decorated hero of the Victorian British empire. The public view is that he's handsome, fearless, and self-sacrificing. A hero. Frasier uses Flashman's "memoirs" to reveal that he's a coward, rapist, and racist who cloaks his own venal ends in the Union Jack. (The subsequent novels admittedly lack the satiric power of the first book, partly because the writer ends up liking his character too much.) In fantasy, Michael Moorcock introduced Elric of Melnibone, a character so white he's an albino. Elric is the omnicompetent anti-hero, filled with self-loathing, who detests the ancient empire that he rules.

Overall, the weight of historical experience made it difficult for many readers to accept omnicompetent SF heroes like Farnham or Blade,and harder for writers to write them. In my opinion, this is part of the reason SF sales declined after the mid-70s while Fantasy novels experienced a resurgence: The omnicompetent man no longer existed in our world, or our time, but could be found in the chivalric code of another time, in the return to earlier values. The Sword of Shanarra (1977) takes place in a racially diverse post-apocalyptic earth where good men are found even among the enemy gnomes. The secret of the sword is that it reveals the truth -- the powerful are revealed for the evil they are and the common but virtuous 'farm boy' is raised up in their place. When the omnicompetent King Arthur or Rand Al'Thor bend the world to their will, it is because they are 'destined' to do so, for the sake of good, and not for their own self-aggrandizement.

So the omnicompetent man does not disappear at all during the '80s or '90s, but he does become rather middle class, especially in mainstream fiction. John Grisham's small town boy Mitch McDeere is a college football star and law school grad who outsmarts and outfights both the mob and the FBI. Tom Clancy's uberhero Jack Ryan is cut out of the same cloth, but gets to become president too. An interesting thing to note about both characters is their middle-class humor (or humorlessness), and their fidelity to their beautiful and multi-talented spouses. Sure, McDeere is drugged and tricked into an indiscretion so he can be blackmailed, but it's not his fault, he feels really bad about it, and the marriage recovers. Jack Ryan's only flaw is that he can't quit smoking. Both of these are mundane visions of what it means to be both 'competent' and 'male' in contemporary America. It includes white collar jobs and two income households.

Interestingly, this same trend can be seen in SF. The omnicompetent man persists as a character type, but he's less likely to be a man and he, or she, has other traits much like the reader's.

Lois McMaster Bujold's teratogenically deformed dwarf Miles Vorkosigan is the omnicompetent man in an imperfect body. For physical reasons alone, he falls short of our cultural ideals of masculinity. Miles' focus on his appearance, his reliance on charm over physical force, and other aspects of his personality are culturally feminine traits--but he is both detective and military leader, two of the classic pulp archetypes. Another Bujold character, mercenary captain Elli Quinn (Ethan of Athos), is an omnicompetent woman in an espionage story where all the classic gender roles have been reversed. Bujold's Vorkosigan adventures could be considered, in part, both a deconstruction and reconstruction of the pulp omnicompetent ideal.

Other writers have produced other variations on the omnicompetent archetype. David Weber's anglo-Asian Honor Harringtion (On Basilik Station, The Honor of the Queen, etc.) is the omnicompetent woman, in control of battleship or business, politics or prison camp. She's entirely virtuous, unaware that she's attractive, and constantly aw-shucksing her own accomplishments. David Feintuch has created another Hornblower in space with his Nicholas Seafort books (Midshipman's Hope, etc.). The black hole of self-doubt sucks all light out of Seafort's life but never gets in the way of him imposing his will on ship, planet, or galaxy. Both Harrington and Seafort seem to be surrounded by an Aura of Death -- any characters who are less than omnicompetent are guaranteed to die before the end of the novel, usually sacrificing themselves to atone for some personal weakness and in order to save Harrington/Seafort "because the universe needs them!"

There are numerous other examples of the type in recent fiction. Michael Shea's terrific omnicompetent sword and sorcery hero Nifft the Lean appears in one collection of short stories, and a novel (The Mines of Behemoth) where he and his sidekick buddy steal jewels from an underground hive filled with giant insects and malicious demons. Last year, Tor published a first novel by Marc Matz, called Nocturne For A Dangerous Man. Its aging hero, Gavilan Robie, is part Cherokee, part Basque, an expert in fine art, computer intelligence, and martial arts. Although he usually hunts down stolen paintings, in the book he rescues a kidnapped executive. Kristine Smith's first two novels, Code of Conduct and Rules of Engagement, feature Jani Kilian, a middle-aged genetically enhanced omnicompetent woman who bridges the gap between an alien culture and humanity.

Books in the first three series -- Vorkosigan, Harrington, and Seafort -- have all made the bestseller lists in the last few years. The Nifft and Gavilan Robie books were widely praised, and Kristine Smith was nominated for this year's John Campbell Award. So it's hard to claim, based on the evidence, that the omnicompetent person is disappearing from SF.

Despite this, one nevertheless feels that the omnicompetent person is no longer a prominent figure in SF. Why?

First, there is no longer a single physical type. The Jameses -- Bond, West, and Kirk -- were in many ways interchangeable alpha males, easy to recognize as omnicompetent heroes. Their descendents in the last two decades are anything but recognizably similar. Most all of them have something -- genetic damage, two X chromosomes, a history of child abuse, a different color skin, age -- that sets them apart from the classic pulp model. Often, they are judged negatively for these traits and must overcome them.

Second, the new omnicompetent heroes often come across as middle-class, middle management, white collar workers. Miles Vorkosigan belongs to a professional caste, not an aristocracy. His job title is Auditor. When he catches criminals, on his own planet or his enemy's, he turns them over to the local Emperor for judgment without knowing what that judgment will be -- something the Continental Op would never have done. Likewise, Honor Harrington's home planet is a suburb for the imperial urban planet; her mother and father are upwardly mobile professionals. While early pulp heroes set themselves up to be kings, Miles and Honor happily serve their sovereigns with no desire for the job. Like Clancy's Ryan, Nick Seafort has no ambition to become the world's political leader, but does so reluctantly because of circumstances and his own omnicompetence. Gavilan Robie is a consultant. Jani Kilian is a documents technician. Hiro Protagonist (and how could I forget him?) delivers pizzas.

In short, these characters are more like us, in ways both subtle and obvious, and those resemblances are a barrier to our recognition of them as an archetype. It's also possible that our cultural definition of competence is changing yet again. The interest in omnicompetent heroes means that we are looking for a different model of competence. I'm not sure what that model is.

One thing I am sure of: it's easier to be both omni- and competent in a series. From 1900 until almost 1950, omnicompetent men lived the episodic life of short stories. With the exception of Shea's Nifft shorts, and a few Vorkosigan novellas and serializations, the omnicompetent SF hero has disappeared from magazines to take up residence in books, especially series. They are fun books. I read a lot of them. But surely I'm not alone in my desire to see this prodigal child come home.

© C.C. Finlay 2018