In any situation, there are leaders and there are followers. Normally, I’d classify myself firmly in the former category… but when I read or watch fantasy stories? Whole different ball game, folks. Plop me into an SFF world and I’m bound to follow my captain’s orders, provided the captain is sensible and kind (though a little gruffness doesn’t hurt).
My favorite SFF captains have an unshakeable confidence about them—a knowledge that their power and decisions are capable of changing the world, and that there are always risks and costs involved. They do their duty bearing this burden, and I’d follow them to the ends of the earth (and beyond).
The unrankable: Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek
Dear readers—particularly the Trekkies among us—I have a confession to make: I have never watched any version of Star Trek. Even so, Jean-Luc Picard was the first captain that came to mind when I brainstormed the leaders I’d happily follow. Picard’s presence is so well established in the zeitgeist via cultural osmosis that even a non-Trekkie like me understands his influence, his good nature, his intelligence. If I ever set foot on the USS Enterprise, you can bet I’ll follow any order he gives me.
The unassailable: Cordell Lamar, The Salvagers
I owe the idea for this article to Picard and Lamar in equal measure. As I read Alex White’s Salvagers trilogy, I developed a strong respect for Cordell. He’s one of the hardest captains on this list, unafraid to lay down the law and decide on a plan of action despite the obvious risks. He knows a captain’s job is to make the decisions nobody else can. I, for one, would be happy to stand aside and let him dictate a mission, and I’d do my level best to carry out his orders.
Lamar’s role as captain extends far beyond the confines of doling out directives. His shield magic saves the crew from certain death on many occasions. He’s willing to put himself at risk for the sake of the crew and their mission. He’s the type of person I want leading my starship as we careen into dangerous or unknown space.
The undeniable: Zamira Drakasha, Red Seas Under Red Skies
Straight from Port Prodigal, it’s our first pirate pick! Zamira Drakasha helms the Poison Orchid, a ship crewed by daring swashbucklers.
Following some spoilery events in Red Seas Under Red Skies, protagonists Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen find themselves in Drakasha’s care. Locke, Jean, and readers soon find that the realities of piracy don’t quite fit the stereotypical reputation assumed to be true in places like Camorr. Drakasha runs a tight ship, but she cares for the community she built. She isn’t afraid to plunder a merchant vessel, but she’ll do so without risking the skins of her found family.
Sharp, witty, and strategic, Drakasha could make even this landlubber fall into line.
The unbreakable: Monkey D. Luffy, One Piece
Let’s continue the pirate trend, shall we?
Leader of the Straw Hats and hopeful King of All Pirates, gum-gum-fruit stretchy guy Monkey D. Luffy is the most lighthearted pirate captain in SFF. Don’t get him wrong, though—he takes his mission and his crew very seriously.
Luffy’s relationship with his crew is built on trust and reliance. He knows when his fellow pirates can handle a situation, but he will readily step in to intervene if they’re in danger. Everywhere the Going Merry travels, Luffy manages to ingratiate himself with one person or another, steadily building a team of experts who can’t help but fall for his enthusiasm.
Perhaps the best thing about Luffy is the fact that fans have virtually unlimited opportunities to watch him in action. The One Piece anime has more than 1,000 episodes based on the best-selling manga, and the new Netflix live-action adaptation just debuted at the end of August.
The unhateable: Ashby Santoso, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Becky Chambers is one of my favorite authors, so it’s hardly a surprise Ashby should make this list. Captain of the Wayfarer, Ashby Santoso runs the space-tunneling ship with a calm confidence. He’s generally pacifist and prefers to solve problems through diplomacy even in the most dire straits.
I love Ashby because he’s more than just a hard-headed, gruff decision-maker. He’s a full-fledged character with his own story, flaws, and desires. His secret relationship with the Aeluon Pei—Aeluons are harshly judged by their culture for interspecies relations—adds a layer of sadness and longing to his story. This complexity and sense of hidden depths makes me want to follow him all the more.
Honorable mention: The unquestionably delightful: Shakespeare, Stardust
In the movie version of the novel, Captain Shakespeare is memorably played by Robert De Niro—Neil Gaiman’s original character was called Johannes Alberic, and he had a decidedly smaller role than Shakespeare enjoys in the film adaptation.
A sky vessel presided over by a gay, anti-violence pirate captain with a loyal crew and a love of the finer things? As a Redditor once noted, “Captain Shakespeare walked so Stede Bonnet could f*cking run.”
There are, admittedly, quite a number of celebrated captains sailing the seas and skies of sci-fi and fantasy, so please add your own favorites to the list in the comments below!
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.