Charlie don’t wrench?
When someone says “I liked the story, but I wish the hero didn’t have to struggle so much; I wanted it to be a wish fulfillment cakewalk,” they’re just insulting themselves.
– Prometheus award winning author Travis J. I. Corcoran, @MorlockP on Twitter
This problem can occur in any sci-fi, but it is especially prevalent among modern authors in the prepper/collapse/post-apocalypse genre. It is more than just the “Mary Sue” problem, where a character has skills and abilities far beyond what their back story would plausibly allow. Indeed, many books in this genre fetishize skill acquisition, going into near-pornographic detail describing the grizzled hero’s dedication to learning what he’ll need to survive. The problem is that even with a plausible back story for the skills, the universe is just tilted hard in the hero’s favor.
Every trap catches the enemy as intended. Every quick-thinking improvisation is the right move. Every clever invention works, and almost always without tradeoffs or unintended consequences (unless they’re a plot device to be overcome via further display of genius). All good people recognize the hero’s contributions and rally to his cause (the ones who don’t are really working for the bad guys. They’re usually jealous). Team Evil is also Team Incompetent, a band of bumbling mooks and stooges who are also somehow in a dominant position. Current Year political issue makes an appearance, frequently requiring a shoehorn and some lube, and the Correct Opinion on said issue is made abundantly clear. Only Team Evil and Incompetent could have possibly chosen anything else.
It’s all so tiresome. Yes, yes, we get it, when the balloon goes up you’re going to pwn the looters and the moochers (“you,” because the character is almost always author self-insertion). Those delusional sissies don’t stand a chance, because no one with half a brain could possibly side with them. Sure, they have tanks, and bombers, and a million man army. Don’t they know that tanks and bombers are useless against a guerrilla militia? Yes, the enemy trains together all the time, and has modern communications equipment for their professional soldiers. But our plucky militia has all the True Patriots; the retired guardsman using semaphore to communicate with his hastily assembled trainees is going to outmaneuver the Bad Guys like Hannibal at Cannae, causing the Bad Guys to break and surrender. Because Team Evil and Incompetent is also Team Spineless.
Now, many of these tropes can be executed well. In isolation, they may not even be sins. Lazy and stupid people exist in abundance, and of course they can be induced to fight for team Evil, usually with nothing more than a steady paycheck. The American Revolution was basically Plucky Rebels take on Empire on a shoestring.
But look closer at history. Far from being lumbering dolts, the British took and held New York city with its strategically important port for the entire war. The invasion of Canada was a disaster. Washington was pushed out of New Jersey. Savannah and Charleston fell, as well. And the rebels were not immune to poor decisions. The aforementioned invasion of Canada was premised on the assumption that the French Canadians would greet the Americans as liberators and rise up (sound familiar?). The militias were poorly disciplined, with terrible hygiene that killed many, and only really became an asset after they had been seasoned by combat (the colonies also had regulars, who were trained soldiers). If not for a key victory at Saratoga, and the subsequent entry of the French with their professional soldiers and naval blockades (not to mention opportunistic raids on British shipping by the Dutch and Spanish), the revolution would have likely ended very differently. Details that are generally missing from stories about Revolution Two: Apocalyptic Boogaloo.
I’m not asking for “dark, gritty realism.” But I am asking for a little realism. Bad guys can have skills, too. They may even be worthy adversaries. Good guys can blunder, and argue amongst themselves. Not everyone on team Good Guy is going to like the hero. Plans sometimes fail. Sometimes the good guys have skill deficiencies. Just deviate a little from acquire skills -> apply skills to baffled enemy / suddenly tamed wilderness -> go home and fuck the prom queen.
“Hook me up a new revolution
‘Cause this one is a lie
We sat around laughing and watched the last one die.”
– Foo Fighters, Learn to Fly