By Ash Bishop
Joseph Campbell really had something with the Heroes’ Journey. It was a small part of his larger discovery that many stories throughout time share the same plot and character elements. He made some remarkable connections about all types of characters. Take, for example, the trickster Loki, who appears in Norse mythology in the 12th century, and yet shares multiple common qualities with Coyote, a myth of the Maidu peoples in North America. Somehow, despite being separated by thousands of miles and hundred of years, the myths share multiple commonalities – both characters helped create the world, caused all sorts of mischief, and then destroyed their own creation. Think Bugs Bunny with the powers of a god.
Bow. Bow to me.
You’re probably very familiar with Campbell’s specific formula for the hero, even if you don’t know you are. The hero is usually born special, but he lives a relatively normal life until he hears the call to adventure. This call usually comes in the form of an ancient wizard, be it Gandalf strolling into the Shire, Dumbeldore sending an owl, or Morainne Damodred showing up in random villages side-by-side with her Aes Sedai.
Put another way, if something weird happened around the time you were born and a handful of years later, someone that looks like Ian McKellen is trying to get ahold of you… you’re probably destined for great things.
Over the course of his journey, the hero goes on to perform various feats, eventually overthrowing an evil father figure, disrupting the status quo and saving the world.
I suppose my first exposure to Campbell’s myth was also the first movie I ever saw, an under-rated little art house flick called Star Wars. Luke is squarely on that pre-defined hero track. He has an unusual birth, torn from his twin sister, his mom dying, he’s forced to hide from his dad, an evil paternal force corrupted by great power. For a while, Luke is living the ordinary life of a farmer, until the kindly old wizard Ben Kenobi comes strolling over the sands of Tantoine to offer him the call to adventure.
Maybe it was because the story has been told literally thousands and thousands of times, but even as a youngster, I found Luke very boring. The fact that he was destined for greatness, literally chosen from birth to fulfill his destiny, made the whole thing a fait accompli. There was no dramatic tension. Everybody watching understood that Luke would defeat his evil vader and triumph.
But you know who wasn’t boring? Han Solo. Han had no preset destiny. He was pretty ordinary, just trying to make a living using his wits, a cramped smugglers pit beneath his floorboards, and enough questionable ethics to shoot first. We didn’t have any guarantee that Han would survive, much less succeed. He may even decide to walk away from the whole experience just moments before the big climatic battle starts.
Han is a different kind of hero, one not fully defined by Campbell’s various systems. He’s not the offspring of a god comingling with a mortal, he doesn’t crash land in a field in Smallville, Kansas, and he didn’t survive an attack in the cradle by he-who-shall-not-be-named. A lot of folks classify Han as an anti-hero, but I’m going to give him another title, with a nod toward his tendency for not-so-romantic employment. I’m going to call him a blue-collar hero.
One of the reasons I love Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney is there’s absolutely nothing special about his main character, Stuart McConchie – unless you really like stereo systems. Stuart could definitely sell you one heck of a stereo system. The closest he gets to saving the world is a conversation he has with his friend Ella Hardy:
Stuart: “The war sent me back ten years. It set us all back. I’m just where I was ten years ago, and that’s not good enough.”
Scratching his nose, Hardy said, “What did you have in mind?”
“Maybe I could find a mutant potato that would feed everybody in the world.”
“Just one potato?”
“I mean a type of potato…”
Hardy said, “Maybe you could locate an intelligent bean.”
“I’m not joking about this,” Stuart said quietly.
Philip K. Dick’s novel takes place before and after a nuclear incident. Once the bombs drop, Stuart effortlessly transitions from his job selling hi-fidelity stereo equipment to selling traps specially designed to stop mutated household pets. More importantly, he uses his salesman’s observational skills to take the proper measure of the forces jockeying for control of the post-apocalyptic world. Despite never being offered a red or blue pill by an old wizard named Morpheus, Stuart grinds away at his job, keeping his head above water while facing nuclear annihilation, environmental disaster, and even villains armed with supernatural ability. He adapts to his new environment, managing to squeak by with just his limited set of skills.
Dick was a master of the blue-collar hero, crafting a famous one in Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard, as well as the less well-known but equally wonderful Bob Arctor from A Scanner Darkly.
My own novel spends a lot of time with these types of ordinary, blue-collar types like Han, Stuart, Rick and Bob. One of my main characters, Russ Wesley, struggles to even find employment. He moves from town to town, restless, unable to find his place or purpose. Russ isn’t just NOT destined for greatness, he had trouble graduating high school. I’ll let him explain it:
“…Russ’s father had given him nearly the same advice, ‘avoid responsibility as much as you can’. Of course, Russ’s father was better at taking that advice than anyone Russ knew. As a consequence, he hadn’t been around for most of Russ’s life. When he was around, he’d permitted Russ to do whatever he wanted. He’d taught Russ how to gamble, how to pickup girls, and even how to roll a joint of marijuana, but he’d never cared much how Russ did in school, nor was he willing to help when Russ found himself struggling with homework. In fact, he’d called high school ‘a waste of good time and energy’. Russ stayed in contact with his mom, but his parents had never married, and his life of wandering had separated him semi-permanently from any information about his dad.”
Obviously, bad fathers are a staple of Campbell’s formula as well – sometimes they even eat you, like the titan Chronos. But Russ’ father did something arguably worse than try to kill him. He ignored him, failing to imbue Russ with a sense of right and wrong, or any sense of purpose, leaving Russ’ heroic impulse totally untapped. For these and various other reasons, Russ has gotten off the starting line a little bit later than everybody else, and now he’s scrambling to catch a break.
I find myself naturally drawn to this type of character; folks who tend to do their jobs wearing loose-fitting jumpsuits. To use video game terms, they’re off the rails, free to wander an open-world and succeed, or fail, on their own merits. Sometimes they’re just trying to keep the Vipers and the Raptors up and running so someone else can fight off a Cylon attack. Sometimes they’re unlucky enough to stumble onto a parasitic alien onboard a salvage ship. Sometimes they don’t even make enough money to take a vacation, so they have to hire a company to implant the memory of a vacation into their minds, wholesale.
Of all the genres, sci-fi lends itself best to this blue-collar story. The milieu naturally devalues human life. Cities are over-crowded and environmentally suspect. People are struggling to get by in a civilization so technologically advanced and impersonal its forgotten its original function, which is to protect its citizens. The blue collar hero faces dual, almost paradoxical, obsolesce. At any time they can be replaced by the millions of citizens they live alongside, but also via the constant encroachment of an advanced, robotic workforce.
Overcoming this environment and the absence of a preset destiny is what makes the blue-collar hero’s sacrifice all the more authentic. In the soulless wasteland of the sci-fi milieu, we find ordinary characters whose journey is the toughest — and whose ability to rise up and help others means the most.