The OF Blog: Shades of what?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Shades of what?

In the days of my youth
I was told what it was to be a man,
Now Ive reached the age
Ive tried to do all those things the best I can.
No matter how I try,
I find my way to do the same old jam.

Led Zeppelin, "Good Times, Bad Times"
When I was a child growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s, a rite of endurance I had to undergo most weekends was the TV matinée Western movie. My dad loved (and still does) watching the men in the white hats dueling it out with the nefarious black-hatted bad guys over matters of honor, the woman, or perhaps gold. Not only were the roles clear (codified by the hat colors), but for him and his generation that grew up in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it was a rite of passage almost, the role playing of Cowboys and Indians, with kids fighting who would be the "good" Cowboys instead of the "reject" Indians.

I am a huge believer that literature, movies, TV shows, music, and other such artifacts reflect the concerns of that generation's culture. From the vibrant and often decadent aftermath of World War I, alternatively known as the Roaring '20s, the Jazz Age, the Weimar Era, to the staid, "whitebread" culture of the American '50s, with its own version of book burnings and protests over the threatened collapse of an extremely imbalanced racial situation, as seen in the tensions inherent between the sources of "Rock and Roll" and its products, one can get the sense of what concerns a society by how such worries are codified into its mass cultural products.

The same holds true for science fiction and fantasy. During the "Golden Age of Science Fiction" in the 1950s, while the US and the Soviet Union began a four decade-long Cold War, there was this tension between the desire to expand outward and the fear of what might be encountered. I will not go into depth exploring the rise of "monster" movies during this time nor will I discuss here in depth the hows and whys behind the comics craze (and its controversies, although there is a book by David Hajdu, The Ten-¢ent Plague, that I would highly recommend for others to read if they want to know more about this era); I will just merely note them in passing.

But now, almost a decade into the 21st century, things have changed. Communism has collapsed; "Western" enemies no longer have a single face. Even the "good guys" have their foibles strewn about for all to see, 24/7. Sports "heroes" are more often seen as representing the worst of human traits (greed, selfishness, lack of loyalty) than as representing that to which so many aspire (competitiveness, working together, achieving against great odds). Is it any surprise that our various media outlets mirror this growing sense of cynicism?

I have heard many claim that they read fantasy and science fiction for "escapism," but in a very ironic sense (or rather, in a bubble-popping one), each of the traits I've listed above is beginning to emerge in genre fiction. From the cynical, brooding, "anti-heroic" characters who perhaps are only less bad than their counterparts, to the growing sense in many strands of genre literature that one is left only to cheer for the lesser evil rather than for the greater good. "Gritty" is the "hot" thing now for many reading epic fantasies, yet what are these fantasies but a stronger reflection of the world around? There are so few, if any, "white hats" around. One has to wonder if one is just merely "escaping" from one cultural milieu to a reflected mirror image of it. Fascinating, if ultimately ethereal.

5 comments:

Liviu said...

Very interesting post, and one I agree with to a large extent.

Growing up on the other sider of the Iron Curtain, I've read tons of books in which the brave operatives of the security police stopped the infernal imperialist spies bent on world domination, or in which the brave Indians fought their doomed war against the genocidal Yankees, and so on, and while I and pretty much everyone reading them knew they were rubbish, when written well they were still entertaining and sold quite well...

And soviet and local sf was also quite triumphalist in spirit and reasonably well developed too, though there were the occasional darker books...

Today I think that the extraordinary wealth of information, the Internet and modern media brings to everyone, including the tell alls, the reality shows and so on, leave less room for the good against bad guys type of narrative. The world is growing more jaded and cynical and at an earlier individual age...

Anonymous said...

Nice "collection" of "double-quotes".

Larry said...

Yeah, and this information overload might end up having deleterious effects on minds that aren't properly trained on how to deal with all of these differing points of view. Sometimes, when I think about it for a while, it is quite depressing to realize that many youth have not had the time to develop slowly their own "filters" (another quote-irony for anon ;)), which might be a factor in what I perceive to be a growing lack of tolerance for nuances and personal differences.

Interesting bit about the secret police and spies. There were some espionage tales, thick accents and all, but nothing to the degree that you describe there, Liviu. Although I must admit that I do have quite a bit of sympathy for the native tribes, especially the Cherokee...

Liviu said...

So now you know, during the Cold War, here there was James Bond, John Le Carre, Tom Clancy and others - I am not really up to date on thrillers - there there were the local super agents too :) Same plots, but different villains :)
Though the big advantage has always been in movies - books are mostly obscure, but anyone knows who is James Bond, while there were no soviet movie analogues due to the huge tech difference between the two sides - outside of weapons of course.



And similarly with Westerns - I read so many tales about the atrocities of the settlers against the Indians, that I never could get into the US version of westerns...

Incidentally Eric Flint started an alternate-history series with 1812 Rivers of War - available free electronically from Baen - and then 1824 Arkansas War, in which a powerful Cherokee nation and later an allied mostly black nation rise and at least in the first two books hold their own against the US might...

Larry said...

Alt-histories rarely appeal to me because of the institutional bias against them that I ingested when I was a grad student in that field. That being said, I view them as mirrors of sorts as well. They too tend to reflect the values and concerns of their times.

 
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