You know, I spent ten years obsessing over vintage games: writing about them, studying them, fisking them. I was pretty used to the fact that most people just don’t care. I’ve given countless two minute tours of my game collection and the only person that ever really cared about what the old games were about was a twelve year old boy that had what I call “the gamer gene.”
But for a solid quarter of a year now I have expanded my range of topics to include science fiction and fantasy in general. My general approach is to read a book, think as deeply as I can about it, write two thousand words on it, and then go see what other people have to say about it. This is sort of like when a student checks his math homework. I’m looking to see if I’ve gone deeper than the average commentator, but I’m also looking to see if other people have said something in a more cogent manner than I have. Mainly, though, I want to see someone hammer a point that never even crossed my mind. Some of the things I’ve seen other people write are just mindblowing….
I don’t talk games with people much anymore. Even hard core gamers that know all about gauntlets of ogre power and wands of fireballs are unlikely to be interested in the finer points of Gary Gygax’s Appendix N book list. They mostly don’t know that there is something there that they don’t know and it is very difficult to pique their interest in the confines of a five minute conversation. But science fiction and fantasy in general… you’d think that would be something a lot more people can kibitz about. And you can, but… these books that I am reading and writing about… they are largely as unknown as the vintage games I’m into!
I have noticed a pattern when the topic comes up. Young college educated people will pretend to know all about science fiction and fantasy. There’s this huge pressure on them to appear hip to just everything. This was mercilessly lampooned on Portlandia a while back in the “Did You Read It?” sketch. It can be fun to catch people out on their pretensions with a few playful questions. It’s just amusing when you get to the third or fourth question talking to them and they look at you as if to say, “who are you?” If you play it right, everyone can laugh about it and then change the subject. It’s even a little fun.
But I’ve noticed another conversation pattern. I’m just completely gobsmacked by the combination of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s incredible influenced combined with the general narrowing of fantasy that has occurred over the past thirty years or so. It’s just a tremendous cultural shift with a mess of implications outside of even just game design. You’d think that would be a great conversation topic, but even people a bit older than me have no idea who he is.
Now, I don’t expect people to get totally eaten up with this topic. I’ve only just started delving into it, really. And sure, I’m kind of a nerd that is just a little bit too excited about this for mixed company. Everyone’s entitled to answer me back with some kind of noncommittal brush off. It wouldn’t surprise me and I don’t mind.
But yesterday, I got an entirely unexpected response that I’m trying to wrap my head around. I think I might have blurted out three or four minutes of chatter on Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, the moon landings, and Star Wars. I was not especially coherent and I was mostly just shocked at how my benighted listeners just had no real idea about any of it. One guy admitted that there had been some sort of shift in fiction, but wasn’t too interested in it even though there were some facets to recent trends that he disliked. The other listener answered back with about three times as much talk about how the fiction was pretty much irrelevant to the wider trends. I don’t know what set her off exactly. I stood there aghast as she argued against things I just hadn’t said. I was completely prepared to just let it go, but she went on and on and on about it.
I let her have her say and then said, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Yeah, I was insulted all right. She looked at me in shock and I added, “at the very beginning of this conversation you admitted that you’d never heard of any of these authors or even of their creations… and yet you purport to be able to synthesize their influence into a wider picture of recent history. That’s just ridiculous!” Needless to say, this goes against the advice of Dale Carnegie in his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Oh my did she double down on her argument, though, and then went on about it for another fifteen minutes.
I’m not sure what it was about really. Maybe people just get really uncomfortable talking about something that they don’t know anything about. Kids fresh out of college can laugh at themselves and move on, but this other thing was just weird. She got very upset with me for not being “winsome” or something, but good grief… she spent almost thirty minutes explaining why my assertion was stupid when she didn’t know the first thing about the topic of conversation…! She basically told me that I’d be more influential if I wasn’t such a jerk. But really… I wan’t trying to influence anyone. I was standing up for myself in the face of a egregiously large pile of horse hockey.
I don’t know how much of this I brought on myself and how much of this is just human nature, but if I ever do an Appendix N TED Talk or a convention type Power Point presentation on this… this is exactly the sort of reflexive attitude I want to head off and shut down. But let’s get one thing clear. I might be wrong about a lot of what I’m saying. I may well cross the line into overstating my case. But you cannot correct me very well if you have no idea who these authors were and what they did. Just because we are ignorant of them doesn’t mean they weren’t incredibly influential in their day.