There are many methods one can use to express their unique, heartfelt beliefs in an increasingly materialistic, conformist society. Some dye their hair blue or pierce their septum; some might grow dreadlocks or lose themselves in drugs or some novel new religion where you realize the spark of divinity within yourself and the universal oneness of all things; while others may become environmental lawyers, politicians, or write scathing political/ideological critiques of modern society from ivory towers.
What did I do to “break the chains,” to express myself? I started smoking dope, listening to death metal, and reading sci-fi books. At this point, some of my more educated, tasteful readers may be thinking this essay sounds a bit low-brow.
You’re goddamn right.
And I plan to stay that way till the distinction between “high” and “low” culture disappears. I am rooted in this “low” culture, and coincidentally, I strongly believe that this is where the real seeds of social change lie.
I did not begin to put these roots down until Junior High School nearly stripped me of every shred of uniqueness, imagination, creative thought, and dignity I possessed. I’d come from a relatively “normal” family and had lived a relatively “normal” twelve years of American life. I had a lot in common with those I considered friends: we all wore name brand clothes, played sports and video games, listened to gangster rap, and mocked those who were even vaguely “other.”
While at the time, I couldn’t even imagine another way of life, I knew that this one left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. My Junior High was a social hierarchy dominated by good looks, athletic ability, social skills, and brand name clothing, yet I was painfully average in all these respects. Wanting only to be at the top of the food chain, I hadn’t yet realized there was an escape…
My best friend was no exception to the associates I described, yet going to his house was different than many of my other friends’ houses in that he lived in a large mobile home estate where most parents worked long hours, leaving us to do whatever we wanted. The Medford Mobile Estates were the place to watch R-rated movies, fool around with girls, smoke cigarettes, drink, get high on household products, and smoke low-grade pot out of aluminum cans.
These experiences changed me drastically, and the drug culture in particular opened many new doors to me. At my middle school, not too many seventh graders were doing these things, so the ones that were tended to stick together. It didn’t take long before I’d grown my hair out, purchased or stolen gigantic pants from the local Goodwill, and began skipping school with the “bad kids” to smoke cigarettes and listen to angry music on the railroad tracks behind the school.
This “angry music” ranged from punk rock, to goth, industrial, or heavy metal, but all of it expressed disenchantment, angst, and pure, simple, anger. What was I angry about? Hell if I knew…I was a rebel without a cause. I could make some grand statement now about what I was doing, but at the time all I knew was that I hated everything I’d been, and everything I was supposed to be. I had, essentially, dropped out of mainstream society into a realm where nothing mattered but pure hedonism.
My mind state at this point is best described by the opening lyrics of Pantera’s Goddamn Electric. This was a heavy metal band whose angry, aggressive music catapulted me into a world of heaviness:
“There is a part of me that’s always sixteen, I’ve found the secret of eternal youth. Some get high on life or money, but there’s an escape…drop out of the race. To walk through the world by one’s self you can’t be protected. Your trust is in whiskey, weed, and Black Sabbath…the changing is goddamn electric.”
Currently, I put my trust in much more than weed, whiskey, and Sabbath, but this initial act of “dropping out of the race” was an important step for me. Unfortunately, a lifestyle based on inebriation, and utter disregard for the rules, unless correctly executed, can land you in a lot of trouble.
It landed me in a lot of trouble. My desire for total freedom had backfired, and I was forced into a world with less freedom than most adolescents have the misfortune of experiencing. By the time I was fifteen, I’d been expelled twice, ran away from home, was arrested for shoplifting, smoking, alcohol, pot, assault, and more probation violations than I can possibly remember. I’d been through drug classes, anger management, alcoholics anonymous, urine analysis, lie detector tests, community service, house arrest with a tracking beacon strapped to my ankle, four trips to juvenile hall, a halfway home, and two drug treatment centers.
These things made me very angry.
While alone in a cell, I had time to dwell on this anger, and eventually work some of it out. I also had time to read quite a bit. Since my only choice of reading material consisted of young adult novels where the bland criminal protagonist was saved by Christ, or movie novelizations, the choice seemed clear: I began to read novelizations of the Star Wars trilogy. These were movies that had always fascinated me as a child. The basic plot consisted of a small group of rebels fighting against the overwhelming forces a tyrannical empire, along with a mystical force that surrounded and penetrated all things, and a restless, oppressed teenager discovering his destiny and becoming a man throughout the course of a fantastic adventure.
What more could a disenchanted fifteen-year old want in a novel?
These novels rekindled the imagination I remembered from childhood, which Junior High had nearly stripped me of. After being transferred to a boys and girls home/rehab center in Eastern Oregon, where we occasionally had access to the public library, I began to broaden my horizons to the science fiction genre as a whole. Being repulsed by young adult novels, and lacking any interest in “literature,” I read authors like Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Leguin, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Ayn Rand, and Phillip K. Dick voraciously.
While my fellow delinquents snuck outside to smoke cigarettes, fought, swapped medications, huffed markers, and had sloppy, unprotected sex in the closet, I found solace on faraway planets, in other galaxies, and in the distant future.
By the time my six months were up, I had once again pulled a 180. Interestingly, besides intensifying my anger, then taking me away from my family and friends and placing me in an environment with people far more “troubled” than I was, the legal system had little effect on me. I’d mostly withdrawn from the facility’s social life, speaking to the staff only when spoken to. Even then it was only to regurgitate the mindless platitudes crammed down our throats about “serenity” and “one day at a time” and “God grant me the courage…” so that I was able to graduate in record time.
Strangely, I’d never given much thought to not smoking pot or drinking after getting off probation, nor did I yearn to smoke or drink. It seemed clear that my problems were not in any mind-altering substances, but in integration with mainstream society. I was no longer a rebel, at least not in the traditional, relatively mindless sense. I had a passion: reading and writing science fiction.
I can remember a particular Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, not long before the legal system loosened its grip on my life. It was very important, in AA, to have a higher power, something that kept you from drinking or doing drugs. Though in theory, your higher power could be anything you wanted, the only acceptable choices were Jesus, God, or Nature. I knew what was going to keep me out of trouble, however, and on a whim I actually answered honestly that day when asked about my higher power. I told them it was science fiction. This elicited a round of laughter all around the table. Confused by the fact that I hadn’t chosen from AA’s holy trinity, the chain-smoking, coffee chugging AA veteran facilitating the meeting chuckled and regurgitated another tried and true AA aphorism: “Keep coming back, buddy.” To this day, I thank my higher power that I have never been forced to set foot in one of those meetings again.
Besides merely occupying my time, science fiction taught me a variety of things during that phase of life. In addition to opening the wider world of literature and writing, as well as expanding my vocabulary and my ability to articulate my thoughts, it gave me a very interesting perspective on social critique. Science fiction is able to deal with philosophical, sociological, anthropological, and of course, scientific concepts in ways that traditional fiction, or “literature,” does not. Science fiction is not time-specific, or even xenologically specific. Though the time period in which it was written is inherent in the work (1984 for example) it is free to discuss not just where we are, but where we are going, and what it might be like once we get there. It often spans generations, describing the rise and fall of grand civilizations and empires, agonizing over mysteries that will never die, and the fact that we are currently determining what the rest of humankind’s existence on this planet will be like.
Cultural relativity is ever present in good science fiction. If you can empathize with the protagonist, even bad science fiction can teach you love and respect for those different from you. Science fiction has blessed me with universal love for all living things, especially humans, no matter how ignorant, destructive, and cruel we are. As a side note, if the concept of universal love sounds like some hippie drivel to you, I strongly urge you to rethink your conception of the meaning of life, if you have one. If your religion or philosophy is fundamentally based on anything but universal, unconditional love for your fellow humans, you are, and I mean this in the kindest way possible, essentially wasting your life and serving no worthwhile purpose on this planet.
Science fiction is rooted in low culture. In the first half of the twentieth century, men with too much time on their hands wrote novel new stories about muscle bound space captains who saved disproportionately shaped women from the horrifying space monsters from the far off planet of Mars. The audience for these stories consisted of adolescent boys who read them in secret when they weren’t popping zits, or building model rocket ships.
While science fiction’s readership hasn’t changed much, besides a little gender diversity, the genre itself has. One can take just as much from any great work of science fiction as any great work of literature, and the line between the two is far blurrier than most lofty literary critics would have you believe. When a work of science fiction reaches a large enough group of people over a long enough period of time, and the basic premise for the story isn’t too dependent on scientific concepts, it is co-opted into the world of “literature.” Examples of this include 1984, Brave New World, and works of Ayn Rand, Ursula K. Leguin, or Kurt Vonnegut. People frequently try to tell me that these works “transcend the medium” of science fiction, but I argue that the medium of science fiction “transcends” their conception of it.
There are, however, many conventions in the older “pulp sci-fi” or mainstream sci-fi, and I won’t argue that you should look for answers in Star Trek, Star Wars, Battle Star Galactica, Stargate, or any other TV show/movie with the word “star” in the title. I do see the value in them, however, in that their fans are engaging in a form of social deviance, and that they provide a gateway to the larger world of science fiction.
I believe that heavy metal is valuable for the same “drop out and tune in” reasons. The genre of heavy metal has a wide spectrum, stuff I consider valuable, and what is simply mindless negativity, or the “rebel without a cause” music I listened to as an adolescent. The anger, frustration, despair, and general emotional intensity often associated with heavy metal has often been misused by bands who stand for nothing, or worse yet, things like racism, violence, or Satan.
It’s true that I read, and listen to, much more than science fiction and heavy metal these days, but I will never forget how they opened my eyes to a much wider world, how their influence at that particularly impressionable age saved me from a life of drugs, jail, or worse yet, a career in sports marketing.
I continue to relish their presence in my life…after all, I firmly believe that if humankind’s mindless death-march ever changes course, it will not come solely from idealistic young politicians, environmental lawyers, writers, or even activists; it will come from the disenchanted, dispossessed masses; the homeless, the dishwashers, the prostitutes, the sci-fi geeks, and the metal heads. It is they who will bridge the gap between high and low culture, between high and low qualities of life.