Rewriting Normal

Sunday , 22, January 2017 Leave a comment

As great as swords & sorcery is, it is not the field to enter if you’re looking for a way to put your wife and kids through college. The real story of how Swords Against Darkness editor Andrew J. Offutt made ends meet would come as a shock even to his own son– who only found out when he inherited 1,800 pounds of smut upon his father’s death.

Men’s Health has the full story. My favorite bit deals with how deviancy was marketed:

The cartoonish cover art of Wife Swapping Report from 1964 depicts a window with a shade not fully drawn, behind which is a silhouetted couple in deep embrace.

Looking at the cover forces you into the role of voyeur. The back cover reads:

Wife swapping has become standard procedure for millions of married Americans. The practice is part of the sexual revolution of our time. Has it become “normal”? Is it insane?

You must decide for yourself after reviewing the case histories of this report—case histories that are personal and explicit. They will make you wonder about your own desires.

I admire this text for its advertising acumen and foreknowledge of potential buyers.

It opens with conjecture presented as truth—wife swapping is standard. (It’s not now, and it certainly wasn’t then.) That it’s a “report” based on “case histories” gives the contents legitimacy.

Next comes the forced dichotomy of “normal” and “insane.” Technically, neither is true or ever will be. But the implication is clear—the book confirms that the fantasies of a casual browser are normal, and you’d have to be insane to think otherwise.

The introduction concludes with an explanation for why the book reads as a novel—the result of careful and difficult work, with details changed and fragments edited for clarity.

The reader is assured of its authenticity, with a reminder that it won’t be tedious and dry. It’s not a novel, but it reads like one!

This technique sounds almost quaint now, but the reality is that it saturates entire swaths of science fiction and fantasy entertainment today. And it’s the little things that get me, too. Oh sure, I was flabbergasted when Dr. Who had a season where nearly every episode managed to invoke the issue of gay marriage in one way or another. I was incredulous when the Vikings television series transparently attempts to normalize cuckoldry by depicting all the brash warrior types as being nonchalant about it.

The sleight of hand with regards to the idea of family is a bit more subtle… but probably even more concerning. I thought it was a bit of odd sentimentality when The Flash television series spun a team of scientists and superheroes that way. It wasn’t until I put 2001’s The Fast and the Furious on that I realized that his has been going on for a good while. It’s not that you have to get close family members out of the picture in order to have an adventure that gets me. (The charred bones of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are a testament to that!) It’s the pains taken showing insanely attractive cool kids passing the mashed potatoes and washing up together as if it really means something that get me. It’s just bizarre.

What lies beyond the reach of nearly all creators’ imaginations today…? Normal. It’s been so long since heroic men swept women that were worth a lifelong commitment off their feet, most people don’t even know that that sort of thing evaporated decades ago. The only place you can find it reliably is in pulp fantasy, pulp science fiction, and pulp westerns and those are not only hard to come by, they’re also routinely demonized by critics and commentators.

That’s why when people of this brave new world manage to stumble across masterworks such as Robert E. Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast”, C. L. Moore’s “The Bright Illusion”, and A. Merritt’s “The Face in the Abyss”, they are absolutely stunned. It’s not just the unparalleled artistry that captures the imagination. It’s the depiction of real human beings in a science fiction and fantasy story that is so astonishing.

It’s crazy, but true. We’ve never seen anything like it.

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