This past week Jeffro Johnson sent me a copy of his new book Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. It is a compilation of a series of blog posts he wrote on each of the authors listed in the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon’s Master Guide. He didn’t ask for a review, or my thoughts on it. It was just a gift…I think because we once exchanged some pleasant emails. Tonight I cracked it open (as much as one can crack in a Nook) and so I can say a strange thing: That I am glad I did not read a blog which I would have liked; if you follow. His words are new to me. It’s not a mere rehash of an earlier pleasure. So far I enjoy it, but I will postpone my judgment until I’ve finished the book.
Judgment is what I want to write about tonight. It’s what I’ve written about in the previous two posts, and its lack is what stokes my internal fires right now.
In the third chapter of Appendix N, Johnson makes a statement of a truth which has so often put me at odds with fans. He wrote:
“Fans of science fiction and fantasy too often embrace just the surface elements of their respective genres. Whether it’s aliens in rubber suits or historical characters that have barely disguised twentieth-century world-views, there is a tendency to dumb things down to a level where it becomes glorified dress up.
It doesn’t have to be this way.”
When Johnson says “it doesn’t have to be this way”, he means that the collective body of science fiction and fantasy works (books, movies, TV shows, comics, etc.) doesn’t have to be enamored of the superficial and dumbed-down. He’s right, it doesn’t.
But if we talk about the collective of fans, a great many of whom are strange and ill-formed, then I must say that it does have to be this way. What these strange and ill-formed SF&F fans want is a structure of the superficial. The less substantive the better, for under it they can do a couple things.
- Transform their crippling weirdness into a minor flaw which is subsumed under the temporarily-irrelevant category of real life.
- Practice a wide assortment of perversions disguised as make believe.
That’s why there are so many freaks in the comicbook store. That’s why there are so many freaks at the Star Trek conventions. That’s why there are so many freaks at Renaissance festivals, comic conventions, anime conventions…there are a lot of freak conventions.
Sellers of SF&F products also profit from the structure of superficials. Well-adjusted working class people (the great majority of us) can’t support something like the spectacle of San Diego ComicCon. We have to go to work, feed the kids, and volunteer at church. A person with such a civilizational-building schedule doesn’t have much time to create a cosplay outfit. If he does–that’s all his spare time.
There’s also the market angle: If companies put forth substantive works, then they have to wait for some freak to come along and hollow it out before they can expand their markets beyond those to whom a substantive work appeals. It’s the nature of substance to take up space, and therefore exclude things from that space. But if a company can sell products devoid of any meaning–any guts–then they can sell to anyone willing to try on the superficial. A merchant doesn’t care if some queer at Marvel emasculates Thor, but he does appreciate the opportunity to sell a line of tee shirts to a new untapped market of ill-mannered fat girls.
 Jeffro Johnson, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, p. 32