The Judgment of Freaks

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.”[1]

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.

  1. Transform their crippling weirdness into a minor flaw which is subsumed under the temporarily-irrelevant category of real life.
  2. 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.


[1] Jeffro Johnson, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, p. 32

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7 thoughts on “The Judgment of Freaks

  1. @MtC

    No doubt. What I’m pointing to is that, in a consumer-based “the customer is always right” economy, it does have to be the way the consumers want it.

  2. Part of the point of the superversive movement, the pulp movement, and Castalia generally is that we’re a large audience that the mainstream groups haven’t marketed to.

    That’s why we’re growing, and growing so quickly.

  3. They sort of can’t get around JRR Tolkien, but for the most part ignore C.S. Lewis, and I’ve never heard Ayn Rand mentioned (Atlas Shrugged is borderline SF, but is also literature as are her other works like the Fountainhead). I mention Rand especially because she is a woman, but was an atheist, but not a Feminist in the current definition.

  4. Pingback: The Gamma-ization Of Superman | Donal Graeme

  5. The purpose of science fiction is completely misunderstood by its most slavish adherents. You point out their obsession with the superficial, which is very true. Nerds think that the purpose of Blade Runner/DADOES (for example) is the noir/SF trappings like the Replicants, when Philip K. Dick is actually getting at deeper issues of identity. Dick was a genuinely deep thinker, contrasted with most SF authors–even the “greats” like Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke–who focus on the props of the genre. Ultimately, this makes SF a very, very weak form of genre fiction.

    SF/F fandom attracts losers because these people never really achieved anything in their lives, whether that was something ordinary (but nevertheless valuable) like making a difference for their family and community, or having success in business, etc. So, these people need SF/F/comic books to project themselves into.

  6. @sjstevens5

    Welcome.

    The purpose of science fiction is completely misunderstood by its most slavish adherents.

    I agree.

    Philip K. Dick is actually getting at deeper issues of identity.

    I haven’t read any PKD, but Neal Stephenson is another example of someone who used the genre with excellence.

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