Wednesday, March 26, 2014

For the luvva Melvil Dewey

I just finished reading Alternate Histories of the World by Matthew Buchholz which, as books go, makes for a pretty good Tumblr. I know I really shouldn't judge books based on how they fail to compare with my expectations (though that obviously hasn't stopped me in the past) but I find myself in that very position once again. In this case, I can at least blame the title of the book, which I would argue is somewhat misleading. To me, personally, the phrase "alternate histories" is positively fraught with geeky potential, given that I assume certain narrative associations with the concept of history, in the sense of an unfolding sequence of events where certain elements give rise to others, or at least make way for them, at every macro- and micro-level. The actual, factual history of human civilization is fascinating enough, and once you start playing around with counterfactual fantasies that make some effort to resemble the logical flow of true history, that really pushes my happy buttons. In the past I've gotten more than my money's worth of enjoyment from books of scholarly essays considering the implications of altered yet plausible historical scenarios, from Cleopatra living into wise and revered old age to the Japanese discovering the New World. Given what I had heard about Alternate Histories of the World before I read it, I expected something along the same lines but more awesome, as it would incorporate various sci-fi and fantasy tropes into the course of human events.

Except that's not what the book is about. It's not a tapestry of carefully considered, fully fleshed-out examinations of hypotheticals such as "if robots had been invented in the 1700's, X, Y and Z would have happened and today the world would look like this." Instead it's a collection of one off gags all with the same format, a la "if robots had been invented in the 1700's, there would have been one at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and that famous painting would look like this!" The premise of the joke is then matched with some Photoshopped graphics illustrating the premise. That's it. It's a 200 page book, and each set-up and graphic punchline takes up a pair of pages, so about 100 gags in all. As I said, it's a decent enough high concept for a Tumblr to be browsed for chuckles. (Although even at 100 gags, there's a fair amount of repetition, with bits about Martians/UFOs, zombie outbreaks, and giant tentacled sea monsters inhabiting various urban rivers or harbors popping up with slightly-less-funny-each-iteration regularity.) Call me a literary snob, but I expect a little more substance from a published dead-tree book than I do from my online amusements and distractions.

Still (and probably because I'm a snob who would hate to ever be accused of wasting my time), I think there's some interesting observations to draw from Alternate Histories of the World. One is simply the acknowledgment that this is the world that we live in now, wherein traditional publishers are ever-mindful and ever-fearful of their dwindling market shares in the online age, and they'll ink deal after deal to turn ephemeral web content into physical volumes, without necessarily beefing up the content in any corresponding way (and lest it seem I'm picking on book publishers, see also: tv and movie studios following exactly the same model). This is reality, so let the buyer beware and all that.

Another peculiarity to note about Alternate Histories of the World is the cut-off point it uses for "history", which is the early 1960's. There is an overt metajoke in the text alluding to the fact that the world used to be a wilder place, with kaiju freely roaming the globe and interstellar visitors performing fly-bys every so often, but those weird outliers have all gone extinct or otherwise departed for their own inscrutable reasons, leaving the modern world a somewhat lesser place. Of course this is partly a practical consideration due to it being easier, relatively speaking, to Photoshop b-movie stills into older black-and-white pictures, or create hand-drawn monsters in the same style as centuries-old lithographs. But it's also indicative of a weird type of nostalgia endemic to Generation X, where we manage to yearn not for our own childhoods but for the time before we were even alive. For my cohort, it's not that things were simpler when we were younger and have gotten worse since, it's that things were always royally screwed up since we were born and we can only imagine the halcyon days of much earlier eras.

But I think there's another aspect of Gen Xer's collective unconscious that's worth examining here, too, which is the ascendance of nerd culture in general. (Which, funny enough, is a topic of conversation that came up between my father-in-law and I at the baby's first birthday party on Saturday, since it was a high-density gathering of my geeky buddies and they were well and truly in full effect.) For a long time the really hardcore genre-tastic stuff was completely walled off from the more mainstream entertainments. Not in a restrictive way, in terms of access; it was just as easy to buy a ticket to go see From Here to Eternity or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. But they wouldn't be mentioned in the same breath by anyone, and it was just assumed they spoke to two different audiences. (And if you preferred the latter to the former, certain assumptions could be made about your intellect and refinement, too.) Clearly we're way past that now. And works like Alternate Histories of the World are something like a corrective to the bad old days; where there used to be separation, now there's retroactive integration. It used to be acceptable to dismiss someone familiar with Mexican luchadore folk hero El Santo as a basement-dwelling troll with too much time on his hands for obscure trivia? Here's a photo of Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and El Santo at Yalta, the opposite of an obscure moment in modern times. If you don't know who El Santo is, maybe there's something wrong with you.

For years now there's been commentary on the mash-up culture we inhabit, and I'll grant you that engineering a seamless audio blend of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" is less of an artistic accomplishment than the treacliest Taylor Swift original. But I think that this specific strand of mash-ups, of the common knowledge of the everyman with the uncommon areas of expertise of the geeks, is probably going to be with us for a while, and at least it has a reason for being. (Geeks have chips on their shoulders. They just do.) Obviously I, for one, embrace the trend fully, even if I'm not running out to buy Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or catch a screening of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In fact my only quibble with it is that it makes organizing my personal library a little bit more mentally challenging. Where exactly do I shelve a book like Alternate Histories of the World, or for that matter, like William Shakespeare's Star Wars? It seems too reductive to classify them simply as fiction, or even parody. But clearly they're not exactly non-fiction, either. Although I could make an argument for Shakespeare's Star Wars: Star wars is a real thing, an undeniable cultural phenomenon that's been with us for almost forty years. And Shakespeare's style and structure are real things, too, extensively studied, analyzed and documented. A myth is fiction, but a book about myths is anthropology; what do you call a book that recasts a fairy tale space opera according to the formal rules of the greatest English writer (other than absolute havoc unleashed upon the Dewey decimal system)?

That's what it comes down to, from my point of view: geeks are now empowered to hold up the things they love and insist that others recognize that those things are real. Even the imaginary superheroes and impossible monsters, all of them have reached critical conceptual mass that can't be dispelled or dismissed as "just pretend" or "kid stuff". These fantasies exist on their own terms and can't be denied. If you do deny them, you risk having them shoved down your throat by geeks who refuse to creep back to the genre ghetto.

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