Looking Backwards, Going Forwards (2008)
This is one of my rantier columns for Death Ray, written in 2008 for number 13 of that ill-starred magazine. I quiver to write things like this. In reality I am actually far more opinionated than these columns may suggest, but my chilling time with The Big Hobby Company beat it out of me, and gave me the fear about revealing too much of “inner Guy”. Still, this is a latter-day example of the real me. Inside, I’m still bubbling over with pent-up fury. I really am. It’s why I spend so much time hiding in a field with my dog.
Anyway, I don’t like nostalgia very much, as you will see.
Guy Haley bemoans the pervasive influence of nostalgia in a genre that is supposed to be about the future.
The sheer amount of licensed tat, for want of a better word, surrounding SF is astounding. I don’t know if you’ve seen the several different lines of super-deformed Star Wars dolls, or the faux-Lego Marvel superheroes, or the cold cast resin busts of, like, anyone, but there seems to an endless demand for toys for grown-ups. And then there are all those DVDs of TV shows that were ace back in the day when we were kids, but frankly now look rather shoddy. I know, I reviewed Metal Mickey recently.
Why do we buy it? The demand for this all comes down to nostalgia, and nostalgia, as I will demonstrate, is a very bad thing.
Nostalgia is an 18th century coining, drawn from ancient Greek, meaning “yearning for home,” a sort of heroic, Odyssean sentiment. Now it means yearning for something that has gone into the past, for in a way the past has become the unattainable home for the disappointed, who long for times when things were “better”. SF, though it is superficially about looking into the future, has for a large swathe of fans become very much about hankering after the past, and, by default, for safety.
There are two kinds of science fiction fan. There are those people who are captivated by SF’s prognostications, for whom each film, book, or TV show is a peek into the world of tomorrow and what that may bring.
The other kind of SF fan becomes caught up in the minutiae of a fictional world, the “this happened in season four, episode five,” of it all. The languages, customs and future histories, the characters… Fans like this are the collectors, those who religiously follow all the stories in a book arc, who buy the action figures. For these people, SF is about escapism. It’s not just an escape into an alternative world, it is an escape back to childhood, back to the things that made them feel wonder when they were children. The franchise, because that’s what we’re talking about, might well still be running, perhaps still vital. But the fan with all seven versions of Quark will have got into Star Trek as a kid. It’s unlikely you’ll see a grown person who’s got no genre form suddenly get so hooked on something that they start to buy all the merchandise.
I get bored with one writer after five or six books, and move on to another. All writers, all people, for that matter, have a set way of perceiving the world, and that can only be tackled so many ways in fictional form. How many books has Stephen King written about alcoholic writers, ancient evils, childhood secrets, and delayed homecomings? All his books are good, but they are all King. I want to see the world through as many eyes as possible. The difference is between the hunger for new experiences and comfort.
Perhaps we need this comfort to distract ourselves from our status as wage-serfs. One of the great lies recent generations have been told is that we are free to do whatever we want, to be whatever we want to be. In some genuine respects we are free, but much of the grander promises of the ’60s have not materialised [and how! Three years later and it looks like capitalist culture teeters on the brink of a William Gibson-esque abyss where wealth is the preserve of evil corporations and everyone else is an impoverished nobody]. We are only subjectively free – we are free to choose which mortgage to chain ourselves to, free to choose which dull desk job we will do. Free to buy as many Spider-Man beany babies or cutesy Qees as we like to make ourselves feel better about the fact that, actually, it was our parent’s generation who could do all the crazy stuff, not us. But beany babies don’t bring happiness, do they?
Many fans cherish nostalgia. When I worked on a certain other SF magazine, I elicited groans of horror by saying that nostalgia is a redundant emotion. I was exaggerating, but only by a touch. I had become very frustrated by the way every headline had to be a reference to some obscure ’70s pop song, about how excitable my colleagues became about some old SF tat coming out on video, about how uninterested they appeared to be in the real future.
I’m impatient for the future, always have been. If I knew Yoda, he’d be poking me in the chest with his stick, as this impatience prevents me from focussing on the present. But this fascination with the past, surely it is at odds with what SF is really about? To explore strange new worlds, not the same world over and over again. Short story magazines no longer sell as well as they did, the book market has moved toward quantity over quality, we get endless remakes and reimaginings… Like much of modern Western life, the entertainment industry has become risk averse. The balance between world-building and speculation has shifted, SF has become endless story – if I may be so bold, escapist soap opera. And it is safe for the industry because it is comfortable for the fans.
Both forms of appreciation are subjectively valid, and I think both kinds of fan are interested by the questions about the human condition that all SF raises, but because I am a self-centric anthropoid, as we all are, I think my way is superior. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing in the world of Guy. It locks you into a never-changing bubble of the past, or, in the case of SF nostalgia, the never-weres of the futures of the past. Nostalgia prevents us from seeing the grand sweep of history, the continuity of time. It stops us from truly understanding that the universe does not begin with one’s own birth, and that it does not stop with one’s own death. Nostalgia is a manifestation of selfishness, a symptom of the me, me, me, culture, it’s about bending the world to fit you. Nostalgia, my friend, is what stopped your grandparents from being able to figure out video recorders. No doubt you thought them stupid, but it is exactly what will stop you from being able to manage your house’s central computer in twenty years time. Nostalgia is a rabbit hole of comfort, but it traps your mind in one time until it can’t understand the present.
Nostalgia is not a pleasurable yearning, but a ravenous monster. It protects us from the fear of our own mortality, but it needs constant feeding. It as dangerous a force as any malignant manifestation of time seen in Sapphire and Steel. Collecting toys as an adult, just for the sake of owning them, it’s a sign of infantilism. We never grow up in the land of nostalgia. Sometimes, Star Trek toys, or the same story told in a slightly different way, are a surrogate womb, and the comfort of the womb is the enemy of the rounded man. No wonder the mainstream media scoff at SF fans; they see faint hearts hiding from the world. It is doubly ironic that SF is an adventurous genre about the future, but it makes us yearn for the past because it is safe. Dig it? Sure you do.
Furthermore, a bunch of people who are nostalgic about what an SF property did for them in their youth invest that property with a sense of permanence and importance. This, too, is entirely illusory. Thom [Hutchinson, now going places] here in the Death Ray offices feels very little attachment to Star Wars, simply because he is too young to feel that kind of semi-religious fervour a lot of older fans feel. You only feel like that because you were six when you saw it. Be aware that Thom’s attitude to the property will become more prevalent as time goes on; expect puzzled expressions from your grandchildren when you excitedly wheel out the DVDs in 2045.
All things are of their time. Surely it is better to embrace as much of time as possible, rather than trying to live in one little bit of it forever? We’re all conning ourselves with SF anyway, it’s not about the past or the future, but a mirror to the present. Learning to understand the present SF reflects is far more healthy, far more useful, than escaping to the future it depicts or the past it represents to us. Listen to Yoda, you know he speaks sense.
Someone recently called me a Dalek when my comment on nostalgia was relayed to him. Perhaps what they said is not so far from the truth, but on the other hand, nostalgia was once regarded as a terrible disease. I rest my case.
Enjoy your soft vinyl super deformed Darth Vader doll, you hear? I hope it makes the nights less lonely.