East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The need for secret histories


As I am writing this, huge crowds have gathered in Lucca for what is the largest event in Europe centered on Comics and Games. For the long Halloween weekend, hundreds of thousands of visitors will crowd the narrow alleys of medieval Lucca, prowling the stands of publishers big and small, meeting artists and authors, trying new videogames, ogling cosplayers, and suffering the bad weather, the crowd and the noise.
Then they will come home, will arrange all that they bought on their beds or on their living room floor, and take a picture, that they will post on their socials, showing the world their “loot”.
Which is curious, because looting implies taking without paying, while the merchandise on display in these photographs cost a nice chunk of money – to which one must add the travel expenses, the lodging and food.

But these are the rituals of those that, in my country, call themselves “i nerd che hanno vinto” – the nerds that won.
And this, I think, is revealing – because we had a name, for people crowding conventions, that we used for decades before the nerds won whatever it is they did. We called it the fandom.
The fact that these shopaholics do not identify as fandom, but as a quite different tribe, the nerds that won, is telling.

It is no secret I have a very short fuse with this next generation of geekdom.
I find their enthusiasm artificial, and their ignorance insufferable. The fact that I see today, very active among their ranks, a lot of the people that used to mock me twenty years ago for reading (or writing, indeed) fantasy, or for being involved in roleplaying, does not make me any more compassionate.

But it was by reading Desirina Boskovich’s masterful Lost Transmissions – The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy that I finally was able to put my finger on what many of these last-minute enthusiast lack: they do not have any secret history.

The book explores literature and media, fashion and architecture, fandom (ah!) and other secret nooks, looking for what’s not gone mainstream: films never made, books never published, ephemera, overlooked contributors, authors and artists forgotten by most, but not by the true believers, the fans. It is a wonderful read, and one that benefits from the close proximity of a PC, to learn more about these people and their work, to try and track a copy of the little-known novel, of the never-filmed screenplay, more pictures, more stories…

This is an artifact of the culture I identify with, and I’ve identified with these last 40 years.

One thing that often gets me real mad, not just where nerdy things are concerned, but in all instances of everyday life, is what I perceive as a lack of curiosity, especially where the past is concerned. No more that three days ago I met a man of almost forty that candidly admitted he had no idea of who James Stewart was, because he does not watch “old movies”.
This is an extreme case, but the general trend is there: just as we became able to acquire any sort of information through a web search, the idea of searching for more became passé. Why waste time looking into some strange detail or some absurd factoid? You bought the product (be it a movie, a comic book, a game, more rarely these days a book) and all you need is there, kindly provided by the producer, in exchange for your money.

The new triumphant nerds have shopping lists, while fans still have secret histories. Secret histories are built by word of mouth and sui generis research, are bits of information traded in long night discussing our favorite movies, or books, or games. Secret histories are plural because each one of us build their own. They are non marketable – although you might try, and write a book, or shooting a documentary.
Secret histories are, by their nature, not mainstream – and when a once niche culture goes mainstream, they are left behind. The winners write their own history, and that history is public, not secret, and because of this, that history is monolithic. They tend to define a shared past, a common root, an identity for all of their subjects.
We all played the Red Box D&D, we all loved the Goonies, we all were scared and forever changed by reading Stephen King’s It, we all love Tim Burton’s Batman, we all programmed in BASIC on a Commodore Vic20

Regime-approved histories tend to be presented as all you need to know.
Secret histories survive as a cultural construct of the underground – the tragedy of not owning a computer when everybody else did (me and my brother wanted a ZX Spectrum, our father bought us an Intellivision), the epiphany of first reading Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters or catching The Final Programme on TV, the bafflement felt reading Dhalgren, or Gormenghast, or Female Man. The shock of the first episode of Gundam, of Cordwainer Smith and of Roger Zelazny read back to back right after Dune. Strange bits of information extracted from ancient copies of Starlog or Fangoria about Alien, or Blade Runner, or Roger Corman’s Space Mutiny. Hawkwing playing live The Chronicle of the Black Sword in the background as we played Traveller. And then endless word of mouth, and meetings with guys that knew about different versions of the story, and books (it was mostly books back then) found by chance and that became part of our lives, and nobody else seems to know…

I found a lot of this in Desirina Boskovich’s book, and it was like suddenly realizing where I was standing on the map.
Secret histories arise from passion, not for marketing reasons.

Will the nerds right now busy filling their bags with expensive “loot” ever build their own secret histories?
I don’t know. If their passion is for social validation, maybe they will never need to. But some, maybe, will.
They will need first of all to find a need for it, and then start exploring, drawing their own map, without being afraid if it suddenly it stops representing the safe and well-established places of the winners’ history.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “The need for secret histories

  1. I strongly disagree with this post, for at least 4 good reasons.

    1. Lucca Comics&Games is part of a trend, no one would deny this. At the same time, it is (as you mentioned) the most important comics&games fair in Europe, and I’m happy and proud of having such an event in my homecountry. Furthermore, this kind of happenings is helping a part of the cultural market to grow – and to surpass certain decennial barriers. A lot of talented authors gather every year in Lucca – a lot of insufferable, self-proclaimed comics superstar like Recchioni too, but every rose has its thorns. To conclude, Lucca is a positive event, not a negative one – a place to share info about authors, genres, books, games etc.

    2. The idea of “looting” with people showing in picture what they bought in Lucca is not linked to the “nerd who have won”, but to the form assumed by Capitalism at the beginning of the 21st century. The advent of social media has put consumers in the spotlight everywhere. Every branch of pop culture, from Star Trek to collecting luxury watches, has experienced the same phenomena.

    3. There are no “secret histories” in fantasy and sf. I mean, it depends from the point of view you decide to assume: I remember one of your Italian posts which was focused about the Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse by Jan Potocki. Well, you were apparently speaking about something half-forgotten…but it’s not like this. The work of Potocki is quite popular among the academians; so, it’s all about the point of view. The average “fantasy literature consumer” (maybe) does not know that book, but if you change the niche to observe, you discover that it will be popular somewhere else. In a pre-Internet age, having an Intellivision instead of a Spectrum could be seen as a “secret history”. In the age of the Internet, we do know that there is a fandom for every book, every movie, every game, every device – even the most neglected and marginal of them all. By cancelling the effects of geographical distance, the Internet helped to form groups of fandom about everything – so, the idea of secret histories results weakened by this reality.

    4. The idea of new people interacting with those ganglia of literature, cinema and other media that we could call “the Nerdverse” should always make us happpier, not angrier. The idea of a barrier for those who come to appreciate these kind of things later than us sounds aristocratic to me, and sometimes suicidal- if you want to live by professional writing, you have to hope that your potential market will expand. A Big Crunch will not help new writers to emerge, new ideas to come, new genres to arise.


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