Saturday, August 20, 2016

Fantasy Alley

There was a time, and it was not long ago, that fantasy and science fiction were not well-accepted genres. The world of the literary elite derided them both, for different reasons. This led to a term that I learned when I was growing up: Science Fiction Alley. Science Fiction Alley is a place in bookstores and libraries where all of the books have a little rocket or a unicorn sticker on their spines. For me, sci-fi alley was a little ghetto of the Hamden Miller Library. You had to walk down a wide and shallow flight of stairs, hook left, and follow the brick wall of the building all the way to the place where it ended. There, in the lowest and remotest part of the building, were three towering shelves all stacked with books of random provenance. Science Fiction was cheek-to-jowl with fantasy, Endymion right up against Pern. Many series' were not present in their entirety. Middle books littered the way. It was from this shelf that I first picked up Guards! Guards! and Pyramids, and from it too that I read Ender's Game.

Most other kids didn't read fantasy. Almost everyone I knew hated the Lord of the Rings because it was "too boring." I understood why they said that. It has a contemplative pace. But they were wrong. The Lord of the Rings wasn't boring. The Silmarillion wasn't awful (it's dull like the Bible, people told me). But liking fantasy made me stand out, because there were few who did. I wasn't shy or nervous or anxious as a kid, but I was beat up on occasion. Rare occasion, perhaps, and soon thereafter I became the bully, the asshole, to feel some power in my life. But there was something about me that was different. Unlike every other bully, I had this badge of honor earned from reading fantasy.

And it was a badge other people put there. It was meant to distinguish me, to name me strange and outcast. Oh, there's the guy who likes reading weird books. Fuck those people, I took the name. I took the badge. I displayed it proudly as a mark of achievement. It made me different, but different can be special. I played Dungeons and Dragons. I fought for my weirdness. I relished it. Fine, let me stand out.

That's not the way it is anymore. Years ago, I railed against the ghettoization of science fiction and fantasy. Were we not as good as any other literature? Yes, in fact. Escapism was a dirty word. Can we not learn about ourselves by seeing human nature in any setting? Some fantasy books are truer than non-fiction.

But yesterday I went to the Wallingford Public Library. I've been back in my home state these last few years, after fourteen years away. I lived in Boston, in China, in New Jersey, but now I'm a stone's throw from my old haunts in the Hamden Miller Library. And what did I discover at Wallingford's library? There is no science fiction alley. There is no fantasy alley. The books are simply intermingled with all the others of "literary merit."

And you know what? I missed it. I missed my lonely fortress, away from everyone else. I missed laying on the ground in a place that no one else would tread, with a panoply of books, just the kind of books I was looking for, spread out in fantastical array above me. Fantasy is now lauded. It's not niche anymore. Thanks to things like Harry Potter and the Song of Ice and Fire television translation, people don't think of fantasy as a dirty word. A whole generation is going to grow up without the stigma of the fantastic. And I suppose that's a good thing.

But I fought for my fantasy, and so did everyone else who liked it way back when. I fought for my fantasy when the kind of people who are going to end up liking it in this new climate were mocking me for it back then. So as Fantasy Alley disappears, so too does a safe place that was made safe by necessity. So, I suppose, we must say farewell to Fantasy Alley, and to the mindset that those of us who lived there are a select and privileged few. This is the dawn of a new age, when fantasy is accessible and widely read; an age of cons, and shows on HBO, Showtime, Stars, and more. But let's not mistake this for what it isn't. This isn't the old caretakers of fantasy coming into power. More than ever, it's those assholes who treated people who loved fantasy like shit extending their control over yet another field.

Case in point: the laziness of the Game of Thrones show. So don't rejoice just yet. It's unclear whether we have finally won a long war with mainstream literature, or whether we have been colonized.


  1. I knew a guy who stopped liking Lord of The Rings after it was popularized by the release of the movie "Fellowship of the Ring" because his love of the saga was built on thw flimsy platform of his rebellion against the rest of the world.

    I, on the otherhand, once took a lower grade on a scifi short story in highschool because the teacher didn't like scifi...after being warned while I was writing it.

    You and I and others like us can still stand for SpecFic and all it has always been. Thank you for this article.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bill. And I think we will, should, and can stand up for all speculative fiction. You're right in that there can be no better defense to mainstream colonization than simply producing and consuming more and higher-quality fiction than ever before.