In the days of my youthWhen I was a child growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s, a rite of endurance I had to undergo most weekends was the TV matinée Western movie. My dad loved (and still does) watching the men in the white hats dueling it out with the nefarious black-hatted bad guys over matters of honor, the woman, or perhaps gold. Not only were the roles clear (codified by the hat colors), but for him and his generation that grew up in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it was a rite of passage almost, the role playing of Cowboys and Indians, with kids fighting who would be the "good" Cowboys instead of the "reject" Indians.
I was told what it was to be a man,
Now Ive reached the age
Ive tried to do all those things the best I can.
No matter how I try,
I find my way to do the same old jam.
Led Zeppelin, "Good Times, Bad Times"
I am a huge believer that literature, movies, TV shows, music, and other such artifacts reflect the concerns of that generation's culture. From the vibrant and often decadent aftermath of World War I, alternatively known as the Roaring '20s, the Jazz Age, the Weimar Era, to the staid, "whitebread" culture of the American '50s, with its own version of book burnings and protests over the threatened collapse of an extremely imbalanced racial situation, as seen in the tensions inherent between the sources of "Rock and Roll" and its products, one can get the sense of what concerns a society by how such worries are codified into its mass cultural products.
The same holds true for science fiction and fantasy. During the "Golden Age of Science Fiction" in the 1950s, while the US and the Soviet Union began a four decade-long Cold War, there was this tension between the desire to expand outward and the fear of what might be encountered. I will not go into depth exploring the rise of "monster" movies during this time nor will I discuss here in depth the hows and whys behind the comics craze (and its controversies, although there is a book by David Hajdu, The Ten-¢ent Plague, that I would highly recommend for others to read if they want to know more about this era); I will just merely note them in passing.
But now, almost a decade into the 21st century, things have changed. Communism has collapsed; "Western" enemies no longer have a single face. Even the "good guys" have their foibles strewn about for all to see, 24/7. Sports "heroes" are more often seen as representing the worst of human traits (greed, selfishness, lack of loyalty) than as representing that to which so many aspire (competitiveness, working together, achieving against great odds). Is it any surprise that our various media outlets mirror this growing sense of cynicism?
I have heard many claim that they read fantasy and science fiction for "escapism," but in a very ironic sense (or rather, in a bubble-popping one), each of the traits I've listed above is beginning to emerge in genre fiction. From the cynical, brooding, "anti-heroic" characters who perhaps are only less bad than their counterparts, to the growing sense in many strands of genre literature that one is left only to cheer for the lesser evil rather than for the greater good. "Gritty" is the "hot" thing now for many reading epic fantasies, yet what are these fantasies but a stronger reflection of the world around? There are so few, if any, "white hats" around. One has to wonder if one is just merely "escaping" from one cultural milieu to a reflected mirror image of it. Fascinating, if ultimately ethereal.