One of the most popular character types in fiction is that of the underdog. We feel for Harry Potter, for example, because he is an orphan, and his aunt and uncle treat him so poorly. Harry, to a certain extent, is a modern, male version of Cinderella, who was mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, and like Harry, needs magic to elevate her status in life. In Science Fiction, the name Ender Wiggin stands out. In Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Ender is a young boy who eventually saves Earth from a powerful alien species through his training, fortitude, and intelligence. To this list I would add one more: Bren Cameron in C. J. Cherryh’s novel Foreigner.
After writing yesterday’s blog, I realized that I really hadn’t told you much about the novel, aside from that one moment, near the end of the book, in which Bren’s worldview is suddenly transformed, and he must prove his worth. For those of you who follow my blog, but will not read every book I recommend, that may be enough for you. But I felt I simply had to tell you more about Bren’s journey, because of all our favorite fictional characters, underdogs are often the ones we identify with the most. Consequently, their portraits of courage, determination, and endurance help sustain us during the difficult phases of our lives.
Unlike Harry Potter, Cinderella, or Ender Wiggin, Bren Cameron is a grown man. He has worked hard to achieve his status in life. He alone, on this world of the Atevi, has been allowed to leave the island where the rest of humanity is consigned to live. He works as an advisor to an important Atevi player in world politics, and acts as an ambassador for all his fellow humans. He sees himself as having acted properly in every respect during his years of service, and as having served as a positive force for both races. So when he awakens one night to find an Atevi breaking into his house, he is shaken out of his comfort zone.
He debates whether he could call and alert his fellow humans on their island, but his Atevi security force and household staff assure him he has nothing further to fear. Compounding his dilemma is that he defended himself with a gun that, according to Atevi/human agreements, he is not supposed to possess. Soon afterward, Bren is summoned to his Atevi boss, the Aiji, who sends him to hide out in his aunt's castle.
As a former political player, the Aiji’s aunt has argued against the current state of Atevi/human relations. Bren wonders if he can trust her when he shares a cup of tea with her and nearly dies. After he is nursed back to health, he is nearly assassinated again by another Atevi assassin. Bren lives from day to day in a constant state of worry, plagued by more questions than answers. Who among his staff (and the aunt’s) can he trust? Can he even trust the Aiji anymore? He is cut off from everything he has formerly depended on, including any source of news.
Compounding his anxiety is the Atevi psychology. They view life as a complex web of allegiances, and follow orders out of loyalty to their superiors, seemingly without regard to whether or not they personally like an individual. In fact, there is no Atevi name for liking a person. Every time Bren tries to convince someone that he likes them, that he regards them as a friend, the Atevi walks away from the encounter wondering why Bren has just equated them with his taste in salads.
As much as he has studied them, and as long as he has lived among them, Bren will never truly understand the Atevi. It doesn’t help that they are taller and stronger than him: even with his skill in martial arts, he is no match for them physically. And, as the incident with the tea showed, much of the native plant life is hostile to humans, making him utterly reliant upon their good graces for his survival.
When events arouse widespread hostility against humans, not only Bren’s life is threatened, but that of every human on the planet. I don’t wish to ruin the story for you, but I’ll leave you with this. Unlike Harry Potter and Cinderella, Bren has no magic to aid him. Unlike Ender Wiggin, he possesses no superior mental skills. He alone, through hard work and great effort, may be able to save the current situation and preserve Atevi/human relations. But to do that, first he must survive overwhelming odds on a hostile planet peopled by giants.
For me, this makes Bren Cameron the ultimate fictional underdog. Of all the literary examples mentioned, his profile of courage, determination, and endurance will sustain me through the trials that lay in my future. If my recommendation of him consequently comes to your aid during your own dark days, I will have considered writing this blog post well worth the time and effort expended.
With warmest regards,
P.S. Who are your favorite fictional underdogs? I'd love to hear about them, and about how they've helped you through your own times of trial, if you'd like to share your opinions and experiences with me.