I’ve always had a bit of a love for the underdog. Maybe it’s because I always felt like a bit of an underdog myself. The guys at the top always had this sense of privilege that rubbed me the wrong way. So my heroes became the rebels, long before Star Wars made it cool. I’m talking old-school–Robin Hood and Zorro. For years, my favorite football team were the Green Bay Packers–AGES before they were winning games with Brett Farve. Many of my favorite bands are ones that didn’t ever make it big. And it’s been this way for as long as I can remember.
This plays out in my fiction. Very rarely do my heroes represent the status quo. True, there are creative reasons why this is a good idea. An underdog protagonist has more to gain. The world is against him, and who doesn’t feel like that from time to time? As wish fulfillment goes, having an underdog hero the readers identify with win the day is not a bad way to go.
Imagine Star Wars: A New Hope remade from the perspective that the Empire are the protagonists. A group of rebels steal sensitive information that could lead to the destruction of a major military instillation. Vader, a disfigured hero of the ruling theocracy, is tasked with getting quashing the rebellion and keeping the empire safe. He finds out that his old teacher, who turned his back on the rule of law, has returned to aid these rebels. As the protagonist, Vader would have to be triumphant at the end, shooting down the rogue pilot who he suspects might be his own long-lost son. The Empire prevails. Order is restored.
Not quite the same impact. And I doubt it would have captured the imagination of the world in the same way if it had been made from that angle.
So, here’s the weird thing about my interest in the underdog. I love underdog cities. Seattle wasn’t my only choice for where to live when I moved out of Colorado. I also flirted with the idea of somewhere in the Rust Belt. I considered moving to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina because I loved the city so much after one short visit, and I wanted to help rebuild. I considered moving to Detroit as recently as a year ago, moved to tears by images of old movie theaters left to crumble and decay. Most recently, I’ve looked at New Jersey or Baltimore.
The heart of this, I realize, is that I refuse to deal in absolutes. There is no perfect place, no perfect city. You ask most people their impressions of Baltimore and you’re likely to hear that it’s a shit city. Corruption, crumbling infrastructure, crime rates through the roof, and other than the newly re-invigorated harbor area, just a miserable, miserable place.
I can’t accept that. I can’t accept that around 600,000 people would live in a place with no redeeming features because they can’t manage to move somewhere else. Damn near everyone wants some kind of beauty in their lives. It’s human. It nourishes the soul. Even in Baltimore.
And there’s something about seeing beauty, compassion, and community blossom under the most adverse of conditions that gives me hope that somehow we’ll see it through. It makes more sense to me to nurture these things in places that need it most.
It reminds me of a section from Cobalt City Blues where Stardust is trying to convince occultist Emil al-Aswan to return with them to their original earth, rather than stay in the evil mirror universe.
Emil closed the book and folded his hands on top of his lap. He pursed his lips and stared intently at Stardust’s visor. “First let me assure you that even if I were to be able to use any of the magic here, it is anathema to me. Secondly, let me answer you with a question of my own. Why do you seek so fervently to return home?”
“Because my wife and kids are there, my company, my whole life is in that world,” he said quickly
“And if you had no family,” Emil said. If you had no friends, no business, nothing to hold you there, you would still want to go back, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course,” Stardust said, sensing that he was walking into a trap somehow but not seeing a way out of it.
“Why? You have nothing there, no…connection. Why to go back to a world that would not miss you, would not mourn your loss?”
“Because there are still criminals there, still evil. People might not miss me personally, but I make an impact. I make the world a better place,” Stardust said. “I may not need anything in that world anymore, but they still need me.”
“There are other heroes there, are there not?” Emil said with a shrug.
“Not enough to do what, exactly?” Emil countered.
“To get rid of evil, to make the world a better place, to make it safe,” Stardust said. His voice was starting to climb. he was getting tired of going around and around with this chatty little mystery man.
“And you think that this goal is possible? Why is that?”
“Because we’re so close,” Stardust said. “I mean, there’s still crime, and people still exploit other people for money or power or whatever. But we’re making a difference. I’m making a difference. There is more good than bad in our world and if we keep trying…”
Emil cut him off with a wave of his hand, “…more good than bad. And in this world, it is more bad than good, would you not agree?”
“Without a doubt.”
“So it would be hopeless to try and eliminate crime, and hate, and evil here,” Emil said. “It would be hopeless. A fool’s crusade to make this world a better place, you would say.”
“Yes,” Stardust said.
“And that,” Emil said with a flourish of his hands, “is why I must stay. I must stay because someone has to. Because I believe there is light in the deepest dark if we only strive to find it. It is my calling; my crusade. It is why I came here.”