Yesterday I discussed the tribal behaviour of subcultures, especially regarding their relations with the mainstream culture. Due to the paucity of comments, I must assume I’ve either blown away everyone with my staggering insights, or baffled and bored everyone into submission…either which way, I’m going to wrap this one up today by discussing recent cultural shifts, and what they mean for subcultures like SF and rock music.
It’s at this point I’m going to reiterate that everything I said yesterday is only true up to a point, and that the last decade or so has seen a huge change in the way human culture develops and interacts. And yes, it’s these here intarwebs that are largely to blame for it. They have enabled connection and communication at a geometrically expanding rate. All of a sudden, huge numbers of people have the ability to search out other folk who share the most incredibly marginal interests and share ideas and information with them. This is the continuation of a trend that started with the printing press, but that really picked up pace with the television and telephone, before arriving here at our broadband-social-network-blogging-filesharing superhighway.
This means that the tribes can find new members more easily, more cheaply, and in defiance of the restrictions of geography. But the mainstream is becoming more diverse — it has become more hungry for novelty than ever before, and has gobbled up tropes, themes, looks, sounds, and ideologies by the hundred, like a rapacious meme-harvester. The fences of the ghettos are becoming fragile, permeable, and increasingly irrelevant. Oh, there will still be people way out on the cultural fringes — that’s the way people work, regardless of doomsayers who predict the internet creating some hideous monoculture of mass conformity. On the contrary, it is easier (and more common) to be a member of a subculture than it ever has been, and there are more fragments to choose from every single day. Welcome to the singularity of culture!
But what does this mean for science fiction, for rock music? What’s the point I’m trying to make here? Well, this lengthy screed was prompted by all the posts discussing the lack of respect that science fiction gets from the mainstream. I noticed similar points being made to the ones I hear in conversations with my fellow rock music fans — both subcultures feel unjustly criticised, and hence adopt an embattled isolationist attitude: “If they don’t like us, screw ’em; who cares.” Which is fair enough — life’s too short to worry about what the rest of the world thinks about what you do in your spare time. But as many commentators have said far more eloquently than myself, science fiction and rock are both healthier than they’ve ever been, and show little sign of shrinking. They appear to be shrinking to those inside the boundary fences, however, because the genres overall are growing, and their borders are increasingly overlapping with the mainstream and other genres. People’s positions have always changed, but now the definitions are moving even faster than they do.
I personally don’t think SF or rock music get anywhere near the criticism they used to in the past — but I do think that the criticism they do get is much more visible, easier to find and to spread around. And both genres do exactly that — like some self-fulfilling prophecy, we’re almost happy (in a schadenfreude sort of way) to find that someone has given our beloved scene a public bashing; it just goes to show how much everyone else thinks we suck, right? But when you put it like that, doesn’t it sound rather childish and petulant?
If we’re bothered by criticism, we should change, adapt, or at least argue our side a little more effectively, without stamping our feet and heading for the back yard, whence to consume worms. If we’re not bothered (as we often claim), then we should practice our not-bothered-ness a little more thoroughly, and get on with doing our thing. We don’t get respect because, all too often, we don’t give it.
Plenty of people have learned this already, especially the artists themselves. There are numerous examples of SF writers who can (and do) write books that sell to people who wouldn’t consider themselves SF readers — this often being achieved by simply not tattooing “science fiction” on their metaphorical foreheads. Likewise, savvy musicians have realised that they can make a living from doing what they love far more effectively by not deliberately setting themselves as a new benchmark for inaccessibility and weirdness.
That’s not to say I think all the artists who are happy doing extreme-doom Celtic frost-metal, or writing hyper-mathematic science fiction with extra robot-Communism and chainsaw-girls, should give it all up and write pop songs or airport novels — on the contrary, I believe everyone should do what they really love. But it is to say that people on the fringes of culture should surely be clued up enough to realise that not everyone is going to dig their scene. If popular acclaim is what you want, then go do things that everyone is into. If you prefer to keep your artistic or cultural integrity, then fine. But you can’t have your cake and eat it — much as we all might like to.
So be proud of your fandom – after all, it’s the thing you love. Be proud of the works of the genre, of its community and customs. Walk with your head held high. But shrug off the criticism of those who do not understand the nature of the thing they criticise. Because you can guarantee one thing — there aren’t many pop bands or airport novelists losing sleep over the fact that the rockers and SF fans don’t like their stuff. So why get wound up about it? You might as well have a war over people’s preferences in ice-cream flavours. Respect the opinions and foibles of others, and they may well start accepting yours. If they don’t, you win the moral high ground. If they do, everyone wins.
Call me a hippy, but I like it when everyone wins. 🙂