Why Are There So Many Bounty Hunters In Space?


Every genre of fiction has its stock heroes, villains, and side characters, that every fan knows to expect when they settle in for a new story. The chosen one of fantasy, the hard-boiled detective of noir, the unstoppable teenage god of anime, or indeed, the chaotic good bounty hunter of sci-fi.

So much of space-faring fiction comes from the simple art of taking real-world concepts and firing them into the depths of space. Modern everyday life, fun ideas from history, or even tropes from other genres of fiction make the transition to space pretty easily. The only limitation is imagination when it comes to the often beloved “thing but in space” model of science fiction.

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A bounty hunter is a unique professional who is hired by state or private interests to capture and haul in fugitives for cash. In the modern day, they go by “bail enforcement agents” or “fugitive recovery agents” because nothing can be fun anymore. Basically, when a person is incarcerated, they can pay bail to buy their freedom. If they can’t afford it, a bail bondsman will act as a promise to the state that the cash will be paid, and the defendant will make their court date. If the accused jumps bail or skips town, the bondsman has the legal right to hire a bounty hunter to drag them in. It’s worth noting that almost every country on Earth and even several US states outlaw this practice. Real-world bounty hunters are seen as either heroic vigilantes that stop crime or unregulated paid jackboots who exist to extract profit from the poor, depending on who is asked. The pop-cultural depiction of the profession, however, is drastically different.


When picturing a sci-fi bounty hunter, one’s imagination naturally latches onto the substantial examples of the Star Wars galaxy. Though they were first introduced as minor villains, a couple of the franchise’s most beloved heroes are now bounty hunters. Most notably, The Mandalorian‘s titular protagonist Din Djarin immediately rocketed to the top of most fans’ favorite character lists. It’s fairly easy to pin down why bounty hunters made this shift in the narrative. Boba Fett became extremely popular despite his complete lack of identifiable character traits, leading the franchise’s owners to double down on the concept. Boba’s dad Jango held an important role in one of the prequels but was still a villainous character. The idea of ​​a Boba Fett solo film was tossed around for years, but The Mandalorian took those scraps of an idea and made them more interesting. Star Wars obviously wouldn’t make a whole series about an unsympathetic villain, so the bounty hunter had to be the good guy. It’s a perfectly logical transition.


The bounty hunter is typically a good-hearted risk-taker who is willing to play dirty and look out for themselves, but they always do the right thing in the end. Fans need to look no further than the western genre to see the inspiration for this trope. A ton of old westerns cast bounty hunters as their heroes. This was due to an extremely delicate tightrope that writers in that era had to walk. When dealing in a western, there are a few stock characters, and almost none of them can reliably play the hero. Casting a criminal as the hero could be seen as advocating for crime, so they’re out. Public perception of cops varies between hero worship and righteous fury, making them unreliable. This means the hero must fight crime without being a cop, so the bounty hunter is a great middle-ground. This logic loop is also partially responsible for many street-level superheroes and can be easily expanded to science fiction.


Bounty hunters are free to be morally gray, allowed to have difficult and complex pasts, and encouraged to solve problems in non-traditional ways. They don’t even necessarily have to be a hero. Phillip K. Dick’s beloved 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? provides at once the ur-example of the concept and breaks the mold. Better known as Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1982 film bladerunner, the story centers on Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter tasked with retiring renegade replicants. He’s the perfect example of the tone most sci-fi bounty hunters occupy. He’s grim, self-serious, beaten-down, and deeply conflicted with the moral direction of his occupation of him. But, where most of these space bounty hunters take from western narratives, Deckard is much more inspired by noir thrillers. He it’s an interesting masterclass in the variability of the trope.


Anime has been a shockingly welcome home to this trope. Cowboy Bebop is the ur-example, as it takes place in a world in which tens of thousands of space-faring civilians take up the profession. Other examples include Outlaw Starwhich stars a pair of bounty hunters who regularly fail to profit from their exploits. Battle Angel Alita‘s main cast includes tons of cybernetically enhanced bounty hunters. seminal space western anime Trigun’s villain of the week format reverses the trope by saddling the hero with a massive bounty and summoning countless bounty hunters for him to defeat.

The bounty hunter is a bit well-worn in every genre, but sci-fi has made some of the most interesting uses of it. Whatever fans think of the real-world equivalent, future bounty hunters seem way cooler.

MORE: 6 Most Iconic Bounty Hunters In Anime

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