Recently, during some downtime at the desk, a coworker and I found ourselves in a discussion about reader’s advisory in general, and of certain genres of books in particular. I flat out dismissed the romance genre as being too formulaic and of also perpetuating and idolizing scenarios that just don’t gel with reality, possibly creating false hopes and longings in some of its readers in the process. My co-worker, however, felt that romance has its place. (Cue The Price is Right losing horn here.) I also expressed a similar attitude about fantasy and science fiction, although she more vigorously disagreed with me on those. My problem with said genres, I explained, is that what you’re reading is someone else’s fantasy, and many of these fantasies are very much alike. I don’t personally dream about wars in outer space or going around slaying dragons, so I really can’t relate.
Perhaps even more, it bothers me there are people so obsessed with these stories that they dress up as characters from books and movies and sometimes even become defensive if something seems to veer from the authorized “gospel” or accepted canon of how these stories are supposed to play out. There are clear limits on what these universes allow and one should never step outside those lines, nor should characters from these different worlds ever coexist. Anything more or less would be sacrilege. Remember when NBC used to have characters who freely hopped from program to program, like the Mrs. Garrett character moving on from Diff’rent Strokes to The Facts of Life, or the occasional intermingling of the cast members on Golden Girls and Empty Nest? The most diehard fantasy and science fiction fans are so adamant about the parameters and rules governing the universes they supposedly inhabit that nothing like that could ever be permitted. In other words, you’re not likely to see Spock hooking up with Leia anytime soon. At its most extreme, it takes on a form of almost religious zealotry that troubles me. And also, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a story someone else has created, it’s sad to think there are folks who could never step outside of boundaries pre-drawn by someone else to create their own stories and personal mythologies that better reflect their individual thoughts and inner lives. It’s very off-putting to me.
Above and beyond all my philosophical mumbo jumbo, however, this conversation unexpectedly served as a personal catharsis. It sparked a long-buried memory in me of an event that very well could be the origin of my uneasy feelings about fantasy and science fiction.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my sixth-grade year was to be my last year in Japan. In total, I’d spent a little over five years overseas, if you count my time on Guam. Yes, Guam may technically be a U.S. territory, but trust me, it’s nothing like being in the States. And while today I’d probably give my right arm for a chance to go back to Japan, at the time my memories of being back home were hazy at best. Stale, awful, American TV shows like Three’s Company and Hee Haw were piped in via the Armed Forces Network months and months after they’d aired in the States, and while we did have Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 to look forward to every weekend, other glimpses of American culture were few and far between. I was in the very odd state of being an American kid who was curious about American culture.
At the time, many of my friends were friends I’d had since moving to Japan, and they’d been away from the States at least as long as I had. But sixth grade was different. There was a new kid in class who’d just moved to Japan from California, and I was drawn to him probably because he was a source of fresh info from back home. For the purposes of this tale I’ll call him Kirk, not because of any sci-fi connection, but because that was his name.
Kirk liked to tell me he was from Bakersfield. That meant nothing to me then, and, other than the Buck Owens connection, it means nothing to me now. He seemed to brag about it a lot, though, so I’m sure it’s a fantastic place. He had strange observations, too, like how he insisted that because I liked the J. Geils Band, I was a punk rocker. “You like the hard stuff,” he’d say. Back then I didn’t really have a handle on what punk was, but in hindsight it was pretty ridiculous. True, they did have a song called “P*ss on the Wall” that my pre-adolescent self thoroughly enjoyed, but it could never hold a candle to the fury of, say, the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” Kirk also towered over me and had a much more stocky build than I did. That will be important shortly.
As we got to know each other over time, as the delicate layers of familiarity unfolded as only they can between two jackass 12-year-old boys, I also discovered that Kirk carried a secret knowledge: He knew how to play Dungeons & Dragons.
I’d heard rumblings about Dungeons & Dragons, but I only had the vaguest sense of what it was. I had no idea that while I was away from the States, this quiet phenomenon had slowly but surely wormed its way into the imagination of the populace and then blew up like a storm. Trolls, ogres and wizards, swordfights, sorcery and spells…oh my! It hadn’t quite become mainstream – I’m sure it was mostly played by stoner kids in basements where the smoke of forbidden “tobacco” filled the air – so it had the mystique of being cult-like, dangerous, and, umm, underground. Literally. And it was even causing a moral panic amongst those holier-than-thou, upstanding folk who were sure these secret shenanigans were satanic! I don’t know what set the groundwork for D&D to become as huge as it did when it did (A new surge of interest in Tolkien? Prog rock and metal? The rise of gaming culture?), but I was intrigued.
Kirk graciously invited me to his home one afternoon for my grand initiation into this mystical, magical world. His parents weren’t home that day, so we had the run of the house. The books, the dice, pencils and papers of some sort, even the snacks, everything was set out on the table with the greatest of care as though we were preparing for a séance. Adding to the suspense, Kirk also confided to me that he was a Dungeon Master, which sounded very esoteric. The atmosphere was such that we might as well have been sitting in the inner sanctum of a Masonic lodge. The secrets of the ages were about to be revealed and I couldn’t wait!
We hadn’t gotten very far into the game when I realized this was not at all what I was expecting. Ability scores, alignments, multi-sided dice, gaining or losing experience points, acquiring wealth, reaching different levels…my head was absolutely spinning. It was beginning to feel a lot like work, or worse, math, and I flee like a rabbit from a hound when confronted with anything involving numbers. It was also obvious Kirk wasn’t as versed in the game as he claimed. This high and mighty Dungeon Master stumbled again and again in his essential role of holding the story together, and things, including my interest, slowly began falling apart.
Kirk, at some point sensing the magic was dying, suddenly decided he would spice things up. He reached up on the wall and grabbed an actual sword, or maybe it was a saber, that belonged to his dad and started chasing me around the house with it. I was totally freaked and began desperately trying to find a way to escape from this Jekyll and Hyde classmate of mine. I was running in circles with Kirk chasing me, back and forth down the hallway, in and out of rooms, dodging or jumping behind furniture, but the front door and the promise of the outdoors just beyond were simply out of reach. Eventually I made it to the living room, almost to freedom, and that’s where things took a turn for the worse. Kirk dropped the sword and tackled me. Then he threw me up on the couch and I found myself in a position where one of my legs was dangling over one of the couch’s wooden arms. Kirk grabbed that leg and started twisting and pounding on it with all his might. Aside from passing kidney stones, I’ve never felt such pain in my life. I started screaming and pleading for him to stop, but to no avail. Instinctively I knew that with Kirk’s weight and his continual blows raining down on my leg, and with the wooden arm of the couch holding my leg firmly in place, it was just a matter of time – maybe seconds – before the bone in my leg would snap. Everything is a blur, I can’t even remember how it happened, but somehow I broke free from the hold I was in, leapt towards the front door, and managed to escape just in the nick of time. I remember limping all the way home and having my leg hurt for some time afterwards, but at least I’d gotten away in one piece.
I never spoke with Kirk after that. He may have tried to smooth things over, but I avoided him like the plague, and by summer’s end I was whisked back Stateside never to see him again. Still, sometimes even the worst people and scenarios can teach you something. Kirk showed me enough of the game for me to know I had no interest in it, and he confirmed a little of that moral panic some people were associating with D&D. If that’s what fantasy and role playing were about, I wanted no part of it. And if Kirk was the type of “character” who partook of such activities, I didn’t want that association either.
Years later, I was sitting at the desk at work one evening when a customer walked up and asked me what time a certain Lord of the Rings program would be on TV. After I found the listing he was looking for, he walked down the stairs, gone I thought, but then returned just a few moments later. He walked back to the desk and for some reason felt compelled to tell me that he’d initially asked me that question because I looked like someone who would be into Lord of the Rings. I maintained my outward composure, shrugged my shoulders, and said “nope” as he turned and walked away…but on the inside I was back on that couch again, screaming.