When the first Star Wars film came out in 1977 I was 7 years old and I thought it was the best thing ever, apart from Disney. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was utterly amazing to my ten-year-old self. By 1983 I was struggling a bit with The Return of the Jedi. Mark Hamill had a troublingly raddled look about him; the new Death Star made it too obvious that George Lucas was running out of ideas; and the Ewoks … well, anyway. I was only 13, but I just couldn’t get the old enthusiasm going.
The same thing happened to me with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I read four times between the ages of 10 and 14. But on the fourth time, when Tom Bombadil-lo appears (wisely left out of the film by Peter Jackson) I threw down The Fellowship of the Ring in disgust. It was well-written, richly detailed, learned, but also po-faced, humourless and regressive.
These experiences remind me of when I was six. Noticing that my teddy bears and other similar toy companions were not giving me the same pleasure as before, I lined them all up around my bunk bed. There were, as I seem to recall, 17 of them. I had hoped that the critical mass would bring the old emotions back, but even at 17x strength, I felt nothing. I could remember the old feelings of love and comfort, just about, but they no longer attached to these objects, and sadly and gently I put them away.
I would like to enjoy SF and fantasy again. And as with my teddies, I’ve tried. But one by one, many of the fictional worlds I used to find enthralling – X-Men, Battlestar Galactica (old version), 2000AD, Stephen J Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu (the game), Doctor Who – are lost to me, more or less, forever.
As a young adult, I tried reading a series of SF classics, by people like Zelazny and Heinlein, but I was disappointed to find the prose wooden, functional and uninspiring. I read the Harry Potter books to my children and while I still think the third one was a creative peak for Rowling, the huge bulk of the later books was a trial. I recently read the first Game of Thrones book by GRR Martin. As I turned the endless pages, I began to speculate about why the characters were all so uniformly stupid, such that a person of apparently normal intellect like Tyrion Lannister appeared to be a genius. Even quite good writers like Philip Pullman or Iain Banks leave my longing for alternative worlds unsatisfied.
A few fragments remain, keeping the flame of my enthusiasm alive. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is still for me a great novel, and I re-read it every ten years or so. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, another book set in a dystopian far future, continues to enchant me. Alan Garner writes fantasy and time-slip literary fiction that I find astounding and also moving.
But there isn’t much left. It feels a little like the rose garden glimpsed by Alice in Lewis Carroll – a part of me wants to be there, so much, in that place of enchantment, but I’m too big to get down the tunnel. And when I make myself small, I can’t reach the key to open the door.
Going to Knutpunkt in Sweden earlier this month has made me think about all of this again. The cool kids who developed Nordic larp are also, on the whole, very much into SF and fantasy*. Many of them are off to Poland later this year to play at Harry Potter In A Real Castle. Was I wrong to leave it behind? To stop reading ‘2-Thou’ and playing D&D in round about 1985?
I don’t think so. I didn’t stop these so-called nerdy activities because I felt self-conscious. My interest died, or at least faded greatly, and there’s no way I can resurrect it. But the thing is this: even if it has its roots in table top games with painted lead orcs and in boffer larp, Nordic larp is now something different. It’s Dostoevsky. It’s Werner Herzog. It’s … well to tell the truth it’s not really any of those things.
It’s a new art form that allows people to create and have communal experiences of great emotional intensity. And frankly, my old, nerdy-teen self would have struggled with it. I’m not sure that if I’d persisted with RPGs I would ever have made them into something as amazing as this.
I don’t know how it happened, but I’m just grateful that it did.
* though this post was sparked off by something Shoshana Kessock said on Facebook, re: not liking Star Wars.