“The majority is always sane.” – Larry Niven, Ringworld
“Happy Halloween, ladies… Nuns – no sense of humour.” – The Kurgan, in Highlander
All my life, the stories that have spoken to me have invariable been from what are usually considered the ‘lesser’ kinds of storytelling – science fiction, comics, B-movies, horror, fantasy.
Mostly because I can more readily identify with the characters. The mainstream and ‘literary’ works I’ve read are about people who are utterly unlike me and those I know and care about. Their concerns (blood relations, conventional seductions, party politics, capitalist greed – in other words, the consensus reality called ‘normality’) are not my concerns. The people who are my heroes and inspiration in fiction are ‘larger than life’ – because my life, though not on the same scale as such figures, is still far closer to those ‘unreal’ tales than to the ‘real life’ ones. Being a magician in a world which mostly doesn’t believe in magic will do that, I guess.
I also think that genres which allow room to step outside contemporary society and look at it from an angle have far more to offer than those which reside utterly within it – it’s something at which SF and horror, at their best, excel. And that reading SF and other fantastical genres specifically stretches your brain in beneficial ways that mainstream works simply cannot do (one benefit seems to be a kind of memetic inoculation against Future Shock – once you’re used to considering complex multiple universes and ideas in your reading matter, rapid change of information and wider ranges of ideas in the physical world become so much easier to assimilate).
It’s not easy being at such a remove from consensus reality. Even ignoring the scorn (and occasional bullying) it can attract, just finding people you can talk to who Get It, who share some of your perspective and have read those same weird writers, seen the same odd films, was an uphill struggle. It’s easier now of course – the internet has made fandom much more accessible than back in the day when the only way to contact other fans was through mimeographed zines and occasional conventions. And though those folk are not always people I can get along with, I still feel a stronger affinity for them than those who stick to the mainstream of thought and art.
(It’s worth noting that there’s a huge overlap between fandom groups and other Outsiders – roleplay gamers, sexual and gender explorers… and, of course, magicians.)
Sometimes, I think of it as being a member of the Tribe of the Strange. Those (to adapt a quote from SF writer Bruce Sterling) “whose desires do not accord with the status quo.” And though inhabitants of that tribe do indeed work, love, make families and strive for some kind of everyday stability on which to base their existence, their idea of what that entails – and the values they espouse – are often qualitatively different from those of the mainstream.
It’s not simply a matter of the knee-jerk opposition to/rejection of the mainstream (though there’s always an element of that going on, I suspect). It’s more that there’s a greater breadth of possibility outside it. And it’s certainly not saying that those who live within the mainstream are inferior or wrong – just that other possibilities exist and can be just as valid (or more so to those who the mainstream consider outsiders). And some of us prefer to live in that tribe far more than any of the ones offered by the Normal world.
Interestingly, ever since the outpouring of the counterculture in the 1960s if not before, those stories and underground ideas have become more and more part of the mainstream. We’re now at a point where the most popular books ever written are fantasies about magicians and vampires, the best-selling movies are about robots, superheroes, spaceships and aliens. Yet somehow there’s still that disdain for the ‘Fantastika‘, both from ordinary people (who find it ‘weird’) and the academic intelligentsia (who find it ‘common’).
Co-opting of the counterculture is something that’s gone on for a long time, but the pace of it has increased rapidly as the mainstream has begun to run out of ideas. But what gets pulled into contemporary mainstream culture is of necessity diluted and superficial. And lacking in imagination – the fuel that drives both genre writing and magic… and which seems to be peculiarly limited in mainstream and literary writing. (After all, how much imagination does it really take for a middle-aged college professor to write a novel about the sexual desires of a middle-aged college professor?)
While out for a walk during the writing of this, I overheard a conversation which ties into this nicely.
A young-ish upper-middle-class couple, chatting after visiting a friend, who they were talking about:
“He’s just so… so unconventional“, they said. “I sometimes wonder if he’s got a screw loose.”
Unconventional equals insane? For a lot of folk, that’s about right. Showing even a tiny deviation from the Normal is an invitation to scorn, rejection – even violence.
But what the hell is ‘normal’, anyway?
To anyone who’s paid attention to history (and is not part of a religious or political tribe which rejects examining the past through any filter but their own) the definition of normality is a mercurial thing – changing constantly, no more solid and immutable than fashion. But all those definitions of normal have to be about stability, conservative (small ‘c’) attitudes, preservation of the status quo – and I do see the necessity of that. But at the same time, there needs to be room for outliers from that majority view, or the culture/tribe/country stagnates. There’s even indications that the lack of innovation caused by the rejection of the un-normal can destroy civilisations.
Perhaps this is why so many societies have times where the rules of the normal are temporarily suspended, where the usually despised and shunned aspects – sexual expression, weirdness, dressing strangely – are allowed to roam the streets. Carnival. Mardi Gras.
That lovely time of the year, when dressing like a monster (and increasingly, a sexy monster) in public is acceptable. When for a short while, Goths, gender queers and other outsiders can blend in, won’t be ostracised. When the rules of Normal don’t quite apply. Where the superheroes and wizards and beasts are, briefly, as welcome as anyone else.
And of course a time when the normal folk get to be tourists in the Tribe of the Strange… only to wake up the next day (possibly with hangovers and/or sugar crashes) and go back to the ‘real’ world where dressing up like David bloody Beckham is the only acceptable form of cosplay – and the demons and witches get put back in the box marked ‘unreal’.
I love Halloween. I love that everyone gets to join in. I don’t think the Tribe of the Strange needs a solid border between it and the ‘mundanes’ – but I know the difference between being a tourist and being a citizen, that me and mine can’t really do the same. That dressing up as a magician one night a year, and being one all the time, are quite different things. Part of me wishes my tribe and theirs could get along better… but that the distance and difference between us might actually be the whole point.
Another part of me looks at all this and sees something that looks a whole lot like cultural theft.
Think about it – the majority culture cherry-picks what it finds attractive from an existing tribal tradition, shows little or no respect to that tribe, commodifies what it’s nicked and still insists it’s somehow superior to the tribe that’s been pillaged… (Much like those ‘literary’ writers who co-opt SF and horror tropes without having actually read enough of the genre to avoid the worst clichés, then loudly claim what they have ‘created’ isn’t that horrible sci-fi but somehow better… the Plastic Shamen of the Fantastic.)
I don’t actually take that idea seriously. If anything, I see that the weird is actually colonising the mundane in many ways. As our world grows more complex (both technologically and in terms of how many competing ideas surround us), ordinary life more and more resembles the science fiction of only a few years back. Those discrete fandoms that used to be obscure are becoming more acceptable and fannish conceits (from the value of behind-the-scenes documentaries to slash fiction) are becoming part of the general culture.
But no matter how much is absorbed into the common culture, there will always be those ideas and people who are too weird, won’t fit, stay beyond the pale – no matter how much money and publicity gets thrown at Harry Potter and Edward Cullen (and as the latter so perfectly shows, even those parts of the weird which do creep into the mainstream are softened, bowdlerised, rendered safe). And as mainstream culture shifts from permissive to restrictive and back again, this will oscillate. Or the weird will simply, once again, fall out of fashion. For a while.
And outside the normal world, the Tribe of the Strange will persist. We don’t shift with the tides of fashion. We’re not tourists in the weird parts of life – we live here.
We’re not as scary or inhospitable as the mundane world thinks. We don’t want to take them over or make them go away – we just hope to find a place where we can all talk, hang out, celebrate life in all its oddity and loveliness. Maybe we’ll find that Temporary Autonomous Zone, where the fantastic and the ordinary are all one tribe.
On Halloween, perhaps?
Buffy: “You’re missing the whole point of Halloween.”
Willow: “Free candy?!”
From Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.