Monday, November 5, 2012

Small Worlds


I'm working on a secret project, so Saturday i went to a miniatures show in Cherry Hill.  And what's that all about?  Dollhouses, basically, and dollhouse accessories.  There were things there would make even the most hardened non-collector feel a twinge of desire -- such as the detailed miniature, shown above, of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater.

But there were also things that would confirm you in your opinion that here was an opportunity to spend far too much money.  Such as a $350 cut crystal bowl, small enough to balance on a fingertip.  It was exquisitely crafted, of course.  But buying enough crystal to make your miniature china cabinet look respectable would cost you several thousand dollars.  And then there'd be the rest of the room and house to furnish.

"There's your desk!" I said to Marianne, knowing she'd always wanted a nicely complicated rolltop.

 "For that money," she replied, eying the price tag, "I could buy a real one."

What struck me most strongly, though, was that these people were engaged in creating small, imaginary worlds -- fantasies, if you will -- and yet there was almost no overlap with the worlds of fantasy and science fiction.  No Baba Yaga chicken legged dollhouse or Moominhouse or 1950s Moon Base or Lothlorien elven tree-house  . . .  There wasn't even any overlap with the the ship-model building community, though the commonality would seem obvious.

My son is a shrewd social observer, so I asked him about this phenomenon.  "When a sub-culture is shrinking, the boundaries are patrolled more rigorously and the purity of the core defended more passionately," he said, adding that the sub-cultures shrink when the avenues to bring young people in disappear.  Model trains are a good example of this, because children aren't given train sets anymore.  Nor, apparently, doll houses.

Which explained why almost everyone at the show was old.  It wasn't just that so much of what was for sale was pricey -- there were lots of small and cunning creations within the reach of a modest pocketbook.   It was that this small world was steadily growing smaller.

I asked about comic books, which you used to be able to buy in every drugstore and (remember these?) magazine kiosk.  "There are still two routes into them," he said, "the movies and Saturday morning cartoons."

I didn't ask about genre fantasy, which I already knew was safe for the moment.  Fandom may be getting grayer and less welcoming to the young, but there are still lots of ways for young readers to discover fantasy and science fiction.  Still, it was a sobering reminder of what could easily happen . . . a dystopian future in which the readers grow steadily older and fewer and the books become increasingly more like themselves, predictable and stereotypical.  It confirmed me in my resolve to write some very, very strange fiction.

Immediately above:  Elements for the secret project.



David Stone said...

Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I was shocked later on to realize that a lot of the the really bad fantasy I read as an adolescent (no need to name authors, but it was baaaaad) seems to be overwhelming consumed by adults. So, I feel like the phenomenon you described already exists in fantasy.

But it seems like the bad stuff never really threatens to calcify or corrupt the genre, it's more like the dregs that seep to the bottom of the cup... or something. Need a better metaphor.

Maybe fantasy is too broad of a phenomenon to really belong to a sub-culture. Learning about the history of Chinese fiction convinced me that there have always been people on the fringe of literary culture who like "weird" stories, no matter whether they conceive of these as original fiction, campfire-tales or historical anecdotes.

Michael Swanwick said...

Good thoughts, David. I'm going to post a tangential response in a day or three.

Sassy said...

That Frank Lloyd Wright house is amazing!!! I'd love to see the miniature and the real thing in person! I did get to be in a Wright house that my best friends' in-laws owned. It was very cool. Set down in to the ground in the middle of a prairie so that when the prairie wind blew over it the house made sound. Unfortunately, years ago it burned to the ground. Such a tragedy...