My introduction to the world of genre fiction – more precisely the interlinked territories science fiction, fantasy, and horror – happened consciously in the summer between third and fourth grade when I convinced my grandmother to buy me a Michael Moorcock book. My parents had already wet my appetite for fantasy, having read Lewis and Tolkien to me at bed time since the first grade, and I finally wanted to read a fantasy novel for myself. I ended up with Moorcock by chance: my grandmother was unwilling to buy me some of the more lurid looking novels on the bookstore shelves (so many novels with scantily clad men and women posing with trolls, dragons, or what-have-you), and the only thing that looked “appropriate” to her was an omnibus edition of Moorcock’s first Corum trilogy (The Swords of Corum). Neither she nor I realized what I was reading until it was too late: my soon-to-be fourth grade self was inundated that summer with the height of violent, anti-Tolkien fantasy. I recall reading Corum’s long awaited revenge on the man who had genocided his people in the last chapter, complete with the description of him “gurgling blood” when the protagonist shoved his sword into his throat.
Hence my interest in the genre was marked by one of the more transgressive authors of the time. Like any kid-turned-fanboy, I spent the next several years reading anything and everything written by, or connected to, Michael Moorcock… Which of course led to me discovering the Science Fiction “New Wave”, non-fiction articles where Moorcock celebrated Andrea Dworkin, anarchism, and the kind of genre fiction that intentionally rejected the conservative values (though not always completely, though often still ensconced within sword and sorcery conventions) of Tolkien and his derivatives. Not that, as a kid, I didn’t enjoy that “more conventional” fantasy and science fiction as well, just that I was drawn more to the less accommodating authors, novels, stories.
Simultaneously, like so many other genre geeks, I found my way into the world of comics. Here, also, I was helped along by my father who had been, during his childhood, an avid collector of Daredevil (he had, and still has, the first thirty issues – and yes, if you have to ask, he loved the recent Netflix adaptation) and let me and my brothers read his old comics. Since it was the mid-1980s, and the comic world was exploding with indie creators, I ended up collecting (mainly through the influence of one of my best friend’s older brothers) Cerebus, Frank Miller and Alan Moore stuff, and other fringe comics. Yeah, I still read the standard super hero fare but thank god for that friend’s older brothers who, when they were my age, collected all the stuff I might have otherwise collected but didn’t care for it anymore – they let me read all their stacks upon stacks of X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Justice League, Fantastic Four, etc. while convincing me to read “better” things. Spiderman seemed less exciting when one of these brothers handed me an issue of Watchmen. I didn’t really get it, mind you, and the fact that I thought Rorschach was awesome and dressed up like him (borrowed overcoat and fedora from dad, shitty homemade felt mask) for Halloween in grade six.
I mention the way I was introduced to this geek genre world mainly to explain how I understood these things, what I saw was valuable in books and comics from a young age up to the present, and thus how I learned to conceptualize the genre(s). Drawn to the more “fringe” (but still massively influential) tendencies, I usually possessed less interest in those books that were more about world building and less about challenging conventions and values. (Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that Dungeons & Dragons temporarily ruined me for a few years because it drew me into the world of TSR pulp, with its Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, which detracted from the better stuff I was reading.) This was geek world before the internet (closest I got to that, back in the day, was Bulletin Boards, particularly the ones where we downloaded pirated software), and so never had anything to do with internet genre fandom. Hence, when I first encountered the internet geek genre community, when I was an undergraduate with my genre tastes intact and my political values blossoming, I wanted nothing to do with it because it struck me as representing everything I had rarely found interesting since I read that Corum book.
For me, sci-fi/fantasy/horror [SFFH] and comic fandom best represented a genre that challenged conventional mores. Tolkien derivatives, slasher horror, the boring kind of space operas, and mainstream superhero comics mainly represented things that were fun but not all that serious, nothing to defend rabidly if it came down to it. Indeed, I was used to making caveats: “yeah I like science fiction, but really it’s good and you should check out The Dispossessed;” or “yeah that X-Men and Superman stuff is fun and all, but comics can be pretty cool – look at this issue of Cerebus: Church & State;” or “okay, Stephen King as a whole is kind of whatever, but The Gunslinger is awesome, and anyways Clive Barker is where it’s at.”
Point being, and most probably because of the first fantasy novel I read for myself, I was under the impression that the SFFH genre ought to be aimed at the more challenging avenues of imagining, that Tolkien was good for his time but his imitators were super boring, and that if you were “a real SFFH nerd” (I was too young, by the beginning of my undergrad, to know this was an “all true scotsman fallacy,” let alone that this fallacy, like so many fallacies, highly debatable) you’d care about the ways in which the genre(s) were pushing against convention, challenging thought, making you think about the world in non-conservative ways. Maybe this was because I really took seriously the claims Moorcock and Ballard made about the “New Wave” movement, but I tended to mock people who didn’t like genre fiction as being “the enemy of imagination.” Because that was what, in my mind, it was all about: imagination.
Sadly but predictably, in the past decade I’ve come to realize that geek genre fandom is also, on the whole, “the enemy of imagination.” They might not be the enemies of imaginative world building, but so many of them – enthralled to bourgeois common sense – are the enemies of anything that challenges genre convention, sublimated and reified political/social values, even literary quality. That this geek genre fan community is opposed to thinking beyond the ossified conventions of their genre, beyond their most cherished authors, is pretty annoying considering that these genres were supposed to be about the limits of imagination in the first place. I mean, let’s look at some of the more recent “controversies” that this disparate community-that-is-not-a-community has encountered.
First, there is the gaming of the 2015 Hugo Awards. Some reactionary dude-bros decided that the Hugos were getting too “political” and/or “literary” and created slates, that they got legions of organized internet fascists to vote in en masse, which is something even my fifth grade self (who barely understood feminism or anti-racism) would find weird. I mean, these were appeals to go back to some golden age of the genre that never existed when Science Fiction and Fantasy were just about boy fun! The claim was a denial of everything that had made me genre geek in the first place, was openly opposed to the imaginative potential of the genre, and legitimated the kind of books I found boring when I was ten. Dude-bros! I was reading Le Guin and Ballard before I was eleven and thinking this shit was the very definition of the genre. Hell, I encountered Delany and Butler when I was twelve (though I did not, in the case of Delany, read Dhalgren until my MA – back then it was Nova and the Fall of the Towers trilogy), at the same time as I was reading some weird Charles Williams stuff I pulled of my uncle’s shelf. Whatever genre past these assholes were appealing to was not a past I understood… and beyond that, their political imagination was both laughable and offensive. No point in going into this fuckery further; N.K. Jemisin, who my fifth grade self would have also loved, summed up the poverty of their thought quite succinctly.
Secondly, there was that furor around the ways in which mainstream comics have been made more accessible for pre-teen girls. You know, considering that this demographic makes up a possible 50% of the population that will purchase superhero comics it might be best to craft some title to them instead of horny pubescent boys? Well fuck them for trespassing on our territory, internet geek fandom of post-20 basement dwelling man-children proclaimed, we want our superhero comics to have every woman character in porny clothing because that’s the way it’s been for a while. For a population that thinks of itself as rather clever, they really did show the impoverishment of their imagination when they demonstrated that they were completely unaware that their love for these overtly hetero-male comic book conventions meant that they were now in the minority. The fact that there were now mainstream comics in the Marvel and DC universes aimed at girls meant that these comics were selling, better than some of the good old boy titles! But since I wrote about this on my more popular blog, in connection to my daughter’s future, there’s no point in repeating myself here.
[Besides, as an aside, that part of me that found these superhero comics less interesting in grade school had to wonder “why do you even care?” If you really cared about comics you should care about the less corporate titles, or even those titles within the big industries of Marvel and DC that challenged, specifically in the time when I was getting into comics, these values. Watchmen (which I use as an example because of its long popularity, because of its cult status, because of how this popularity and cult status was renewed by that god-awful movie adaptation) was important precisely because, in its own and limited way, it tried to challenge this kind of superhero bullshit… Are all you people like my sixth grade self and love Watchmen because you think Rorschach is awesome rather than, as was intended, the depiction of the kind of person who gets swept up in fascist politics?]
But, thirdly, this comic book conservatism finds an even more pernicious outlet in the boycott cults aimed at every movie adaptation that defies the 1950s values of serialized comic characters. Like all the recent hate being directed at the upcoming Fantastic Four adaptation because the director had the audacity to cast an African American actor as Johnny Storm. So much so that the director, after receiving a shitload of racist hate mail, bowed off of another high profile project. The same kind of racist “preservation of white characters” happened with the Thor movies as well, with the same people angry that Idris Elba was cast as a Norse god (though, as one of my friends and comrades jokingly pointed out, the racists should have been happy since Elba’s character was the Norse god version of a doorman), so this attack on Fantastic Four was predictable. You’d think they would realize that this treatment of Fantastic Four can’t be any worse than the last version – with the guy from Charmed playing Doom, and Captain America playing Johnny Storm (now that’s confusing for the Marvel Universe!) – which was only marginally better than that Roger Corman unreleased bootleg. But these fans’ only problem real problem with the current iteration is that one of their beloved white characters is now black. This shouldn’t even be seen as super transgressive after, you know, the Civil Rights movement: we’re talking about the lowest level of the political imaginary, and if they can’t get with that than they really are behind the times in term of cultural transformation.
Fourthly, due to the world of internet blogging, we have now reached a point where there are a few bloggers who possess the mental constitution (of 18!) to challenge the values of popular authors and novels. These challenges are immediately met with trolling and an entire dedicated fanbase who feel personally violated when their favourite author, who really has nothing financially to lose, is being called to account for some of their problematic positions. Like the Bakker debacle initiated by Requires Hate (who has now been viciously marginalized) where even the author, after his fans rallied to defend him, complained about how his sales were being hurt by a female blogger. Or the critiques of Martin that are met with charges of “jealousy” on the part of fanboys who just can’t stand it when their fave author is being challenged. Debate, critique, challenge is considered anathema to this world of genre warriors who, for some reason, like to believe that they are somehow representing the most daring aspects of their chosen genre. Yeah you’re defending Martin today, because Game of Thrones is on television and all and so you need to justify all the rapey-ness of it, but if you were around two decades ago you probably would be defending Dragons of Autumn Twilight or how Drizzt was fucking awesome in The Crystal Shard.
In any case, the world of the geek genre is not how I imagined it would be when I saw myself as part of this world, back in the days before internet fandom. It probably never was how I imagined it; there’s no point in appealing to a past-perfect (as reactionaries like Vox Day do) that never existed. Rather, the development of this genre community on the internet in the past decade and a half has taught me that there really is no commonly understood genre, that the dominant community assembled around this genre is far from thoughtful, and that even SFFH fans are, on the whole, the enemies of imagination.