Most SF had some protagonist with powers or technology (again powers), and were usually really intelligent and/or creative, and they would solve the problem put in front of them, defeat the bad guy and go onto bigger adventures. Fantasy had much the same formula, have special powers, get treated badly because of them, but they become essential to how the protagonist solves the world's problems. The first book that totally turned that formula upside-down for me was Daniel Keys Moran's Emerald Eyes. I'll give you a spoiler alert now for a thirty-year-old book. *laughs* Go read it if you haven't, it's well worth it.
The Gifted in Emerald Eyes not only don't win, they get nuked from orbit. The forces arrayed against them are varied, and some of them are extremely principled. The most powerful of them would never have fit under the unfortunate label "bad guy". The Gifted genies of Moran's book were amazing, but the powers that raised against them were their equal, and the politics of the world were anything but simplistic.
Later, I would read more SF books with more complex sociological forces at play, but this was my first.
And the most interesting thing for me was that it matched my reality better than the other books. I understood that people often felt threatened by my gifts, and that if I flaunted them, that the forces that would array against me were real and pertinent to my ability to make a difference in the world. Being Gifted was the opposite of being easily accepted, and often was the opposite of being in true power. The Gifted in Moran's book started out as slaves to the reigning government that created them.
And there was an emotional undercurrent to the whole book that I realized much later in life. I reread the original book just six months ago, and then read everything else Daniel has written since, which includes several sequels which follow Trent, who was of the same genetics as the rest of the clan, but he doesn't have either the green eyes or the psychic gifts of his siblings.
Trent struck me in the original book because his story is a little like mine. I am not a genius. I'm smart and I work hard, but I've experienced those who are truly Gifted, and I'm not that. I have my own gifts, which have more to do with kindness and communication and empathy. *laughs* I don't deny that I have good mental capacity, it's just that I'm just not That Good. And at Caltech, I was surrounded by people who really were That Good, and from that experience, I can say, clearly, that I am not.
And that moment, when Trent finds out that he's never going to join the rest of his odd family in their uniqueness, when he goes out and hides and hurts and Carl Castaveras, the founder of that family, goes to find him in the dark... and when Carl feels what Trent feels... I realized that someone else, someone real, in the very same world I was living and breathing on, knew exactly what it was I was feeling and even could feel and show the bones of why.
Trent survives the nuke because he leaves when he finds out he can't belong, and he ends up in the slums and a part of a gang. That was amazing to me because I'd run with a gang from the Southeast side of San Diego when I'd moved there from LA my senior year in high school. The black and Hispanic kids bussed into La Jolla High School were in the same boat I was, i.e. completely outside the social norms of the school. They gamed, playing a remake of D&D where they were running in Feudal Japan, we went to an art theater to see Hong Kong kung-fu movies, and sometimes they needed rides home. I was going to UCSD for engineering calculus and physics, and so I had a car and could drive them. So I did, and really got to know them.
Trent's friendships with his Sprawl friends echoed my gut feel that having people who will always look out for you is more important than having friends who have some superpower gift.
And Trent still tried. He still worked for what he felt was the right and tried to fix what was wrong when he could see the problem. Even when other people couldn't. And the first book ended with things still unresolved and there wasn't a complete 'win' by Trent other than survival, which was a victory in and of itself. That was different and it was oddly good. And then it was a lot of years before I could find out what happened next.
One of the interesting questions the Slate editor had for me, when we were writing the Real Genius article together, was, "What is the lesson you got from the movie?" And she quoted the one that the movie tries to spoon feed you, i.e. don't create things you don't know the consequences of. However...
The technologies I've worked on are now in every single cell tower in the world (including the ones being used by terrorists, my mother, your children, swindlers, saints, and the government), M&M printers, satellites, heart defibrillators, airplanes, rockets, car engines, sensors of all types, weather stations... etc. I, being merely human, cannot and could never have thought of all the things that they're going to be used to do. Much like poor Nobel.
So it's not a useful takeaway for an active technologist.
For me the takeaway has always been "make justice, whenever you find that something has gone wrong." The way that Mitch and his friends exacted a very particular sort of revenge on the professor, in a way that affected him and only him in exactly the way that he benefited from his cheat was the best part of the movie.
Caltech had only one rule: "Take no unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community." Period. There was no talking around the 'words' of that rule, it was all about the spirit of the thing. And Real Genius went along with that spirit with the actual retribution that is visited on the cheating professor. They took away the house that he built using the money he scammed. It didn't hurt anyone else other than the pride of those whose pride had hurt the most people, and it worked.
When Moran's later books came out, I found out that that is what Trent does once he's out in the world. He exacts justice where he sees it's missing, and he uses tactics that only hurt those that deserve it in the ways they most deserve. He doesn't kill. He works the system and uses their own greed, their own blindness or overconfidence against them. And if someone principled started on the "wrong" side, Trent didn't hurt them even when it cost him, and when they understood what he was really trying to do, they'd start helping him.
I've always had one driving principle, and that is, "I can work toward fixing whatever is broken in the world. It will, however, cost me."
It's the one thing I've hung onto for most of my days, and it's interesting looking at that now, and realizing that I've never been driven by anything else. There was a memoir workshop where one of the subjects was to write about what was wrong with the world and how it 'should' be, and I stared and stared at it. The world is the way it is. To say that it 'should' be otherwise is futile and a waste of my energy compared to investing the energy into changing it into what I want it to be.
Daniel Keys Moran hit exactly that point in his books. People tell me that the following books aren't as good as the first, but I disagree. He constantly tumbles about the understanding of "good guy" and "bad guy" and creates great motivations for all of his people. But my principles are why I love the latter books, they speak to the same thing that shaped my becoming an adult.
So I highly recommend the series, and hope that if you haven't been acquainted with his work that you will go out and find them. I've also gotten to know him a little on Facebook, and he's a really good guy with really strong principles of his own. And while some people say that it shouldn't matter if the creator is as good as the work, it kind of does for me. He's a good guy.
Anyway... I hope you check his work out.