In sci-fi and fantasy, heroes tend to wield huge two-handed swords or have bandoliers of ammunition strapped over their impressive physiques as they rocket through space and time. Or, sometimes, they are brainy mad-scientist types who kick butt via chemical reactions, superior intellect, and possibly a time machine disguised as a police call box.
Rarely do true academics get to be the hero of an SFF story, though they often play important supporting roles, and a hero with the extremely specific job of translator is even rarer still. In fact, the following five books may be the only ones in which a translator gets to save the day—at least in part because they’re the only ones who can figure out what’s going on.
Bellis Coldwine in The Scar, by China Miéville
Fleeing New Crobuzon after the events of Perdido Street Station, Bellis Coldwine is a brilliant linguist who is soon captured by pirates and forcibly made a citizen of the floating city Armada. There she is put in charge of the library and spends her time resentfully missing her home even as the Lovers, the leaders of Armada, involve her in their plot to raise the sea monster known as the Avanc. When information on an ancient book explaining how to summon the Avanc is found, Bellis destroys it and puts herself into danger in order to warn her home city—which cast her out—of impending danger, making her the best kind of hero: the unappreciated kind.
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Louise Banks in “Story of Your Life”, by Ted Chiang
Dr. Louise Banks is called in to help translate an alien language when spaceships appear in twelve areas around the globe. Amidst a tense military presence and constrained by secretive CIA operatives and the mind-bending presence of the aliens themselves, she struggles with visions of her doomed daughter that aren’t exactly what they seem while working on a language that is like nothing humanity has ever encountered. It’s very safe to say that without spoiling anything Dr. Banks more or less single-handedly saves humanity from long-range doom by finally having the epiphany that allows us to communicate and understand the visitors—but don’t let the word “epiphany” fool you; it’s very clear that only through Banks’ experience, training, and exhaustive work on-site that the breakthrough comes to her. Chiang even surrounds her with more conventional “hero” types as contrast—hero types who almost ruin everything.
Melisande Stokes in The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Stephenson and Galland aren’t shy: this story includes sorcery, time travel, and shadowy government divisions seeking to bring magic back to the world through the ironic use of advanced technology. At the center of this brisk, exuberantly lush sci-fi story is Melisande Stokes, a brilliant expert in ancient languages living an “agreeably uninteresting existence” before she’s recruited by the Department of Diachronic Operations (D.O.D.O.) to translate documents and report patterns she might notice. Eventually, this leads to her being stranded in the 19th century. Stokes is alarmed to discover magic worked up until the year 1851, when the industrial revolution tipped the balance and the buzzing frequencies of modern technology blocked it—something D.O.D.O. is determined to change via liberal, history-altering time travel.
Jame Retief in The Retief series, by Keith Laumer
You won’t find Jame Retief’s name in the official history of diplomacy on frontier planets in in the 29th century, but his personal accounts reveal his heroic ability to ignore rules and regulations, outsmart not just his enemies and alien civilizations, but also his own employers and small-minded superiors as he carves out a largely uncelebrated but undeniably brilliant diplomatic career. Retief is an accomplished linguist in the Harry Flashman Pragmatic mold, and is usually the only member of any diplomatic mission to bother learning any of the native alien languages encountered, making him not just the de facto translator, but also usually the only person in any position to accomplish anything—like defeating humanity’s enemies. Hilarious and imaginative, Retief’s stories demonstrate that being a linguist can be a superpower even in the far future.
Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, is chosen by the Vatican to be a part of the first manned mission to an alien civilization, in part because of his expertise with language—Sandoz’s techniques are used by computer models to create translation software, so he’s an obvious choice for inclusion. And while Sandoz returns as the sole survivor, he is broken physically and mentally, then only to be condemned by the church. Yet he is very much the hero of this grim and unexpected story of first contact, which pivots on the arrogant human assumption that alien civilizations will be comprehensible to us from a superficial glimpse. What Sandoz discovers not only destroys his faith and his body, it nearly destroys the Church that sent him on the mission in the first place. The fact that by the end, Sandoz has even begun to heal from his ordeal is about as heroic as it gets.
Honorable mention: the babelfish. That counts as a hero, right?