If you’re a fictional character, chances are high that you or someone close to you will vanish into the wilderness—particularly if you’re a secondary character (known in the SF field as a redshirt). If you are, you should definitely read the following essay, which discusses the protagonists with whom you should never, under any circumstances, go camping. They will survive. You probably won’t.
Odysseus — The Odyssey
Odysseus was skillful and cunning; he survived the decade-long Trojan War and came up with that notorious horse gambit. But Odysseus was not canny enough to avoid pissing off the god Poseidon. This is why it took Odysseus ten years to find his way across the thousand or so kilometers between Troy and his home isle of Ithaca. Odysseus’ companions were seasoned warriors, too: None survived, having fallen to a variety of outlandish hazards.
Northwest Smith has a remarkable talent for wandering into dangerous pocket universes and ancient temples best left abandoned, yet emerging alive and healthy. The beautiful young women he attracts generally do not fare so well. Camping, or adventuring, with Northwest is a one-way ticket to oblivion.
“But I’m not a beautiful young woman,” you might say. Well, Northwest’s Venusian pal Yarol seems to be just as vulnerable to Northwest’s charms, even if Yarol has thus far managed to stay alive. It’s not clear that anyone who hangs around Northwest for any length of time will be able to resist the urge to jump in front of Northwest when the blasters blaze.
Dorothy Yoshida — Four Hundred Billion Stars
Dorothy Yoshida is an astronomer, but it’s her psionic Talent that gets her drafted for a risky expedition. She is sent to a world that has been greatly altered by an advanced civilization, with tech that humans cannot match. Already at war with another enigmatic alien race, humanity needs to know if the beings who reshaped this world are a threat. It’s up to Dorothy to find out.
Unfortunately, Dorothy lacks wilderness-survival skills, as do her companions. Dorothy has plot immunity. Dorothy will appear in the sequel. Many of her companions, alas, will not. Be like Dorothy—not her friends.
Cordelia Naismith — The Vorkosigan Saga
Mapping new worlds is likely to be risky at best. Do so in the company of Cordelia Naismith and one may very well meet one’s demise while providing the occasion for Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan’s meet-cute. At best, you may suffer life-altering injuries. Stay home and let someone else play romantic catalyst.
(I also do not recommend shopping with Cordelia Naismith—but I would watch that reality show.)
Rowan — The Steerswoman
Rowan the Steerswoman spends her life gathering information and creating a framework in which to evaluate it. She’s a scientist, in other words. But she lives in a world which is largely hostile to human life, one whose wizards are determined to maintain a monopoly on knowledge. Determined, brave, and resourceful, Rowan survives even Routine Bioform Clearance. Many of the lesser characters she encounters are not, alas, so lucky.
Cheerwell Maker — Shadows of the Apt
Cheerwell Maker—Che to her friends—is an intelligent, plucky young woman, determined to prove her worth to the city-state of Collegium and to her uncle Stenwold. Che has a talent for walking into ambushes, getting captured, and dabbling with Forces Best Left Undabbled. She inevitably emerges unscathed… well, alive, at least. Her friends, allies, and camping buddies? Not so much.
Of course, the easiest survival method is to be the protagonist. Especially if they’re the viewpoint character. They have to survive, right?
Ah, yes: “To Build a Fire” (the 1908 version, of course, not the earlier, non-horrifying version, which is much less famous for good reason.) Maybe it’s best to never go camping at all.
Originally published August 2018.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nomineeJames Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.