posted Monday 23 August 2010 @ 6:54 am PDT
by Gary Westfahl
To immediately clarify my title, I must explain that both my wife Lynne and I have blonde hair and blue eyes, and are of Northern European descent, so our relationship matches no conventional definition of a “mixed marriage.” But if I add that I have been devoted to science fiction for my entire life, while my wife has never had any interest at all in science fiction, then some people will understand exactly what I am talking about.
The divide between us is, first of all, physically evident to anyone who visits our house. All but one of its rooms is furnished and decorated in a stylish, conventional manner recalling the designer homes observed on the Home and Garden Channel, which was long one of my wife’s favorite channels. In the rooms on display, one must search very hard to find precisely three understated clues that someone with an interest in science fiction lives in this house: on the bookshelf behind the television in the family room, amidst framed photographs and other mementos, rests the plaque commemorating my Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction and fantasy scholarship; on the wall next to the bathroom, there is a framed certificate of my Hugo Award nomination; and in our living room – after a brief argument – we have placed a small bookshelf to one side that displays all of my published books about science fiction, along with other books and magazines that include something I have written. (The problem now is that this bookshelf no longer has enough room for all of the Westfahl items, so another battle looms about replacing it with a larger and more prominent bookshelf.)
Then, after a guided tour of this impeccably fashionable home, one can open the door at the end of the hallway – which my wife usually closes when company comes – and enter a different world. Here, the walls are covered with bookshelves extending to the ceiling filled with books and magazines, most of them science fiction and fantasy, and the rare empty spaces on the walls, shelves, and computer desk are occupied by various items of memorabilia involving spaceships, superheroes, and monsters, such as framed pictures of the stars of Star Trek and the Justice League of America and a poster and dangling bat from my Carleton College production of Dracula. This is My Room, officially referred to as either the “office” or the “library,” where I do my writing and singularly control the décor, and the one place in the house which resembles the dwelling of a typical science fiction fan.
Our social lives – if one can say that I have a social life at all – are also very different. My wife loves visiting with her numerous friends and attending their social gatherings, and on rare occasions I will accompany her in going to a friend’s party (though I will likely spend more time with the host’s cat than with the host) or I will sit with her in our family room talking with guests about various subjects, none of them science fiction. Then, on equally rare occasions, my wife will join me at the one sort of social event I enjoy – a science fiction convention – where at times she will eagerly converse with the few friends I may encounter (indeed, she usually talks to them more than I do). At other times, she amuses herself by softly commenting on the ridiculous fannish costumes or the hideous artwork on display – sadly, with limited space available in the office, there will never be any paintings of winged cats pursuing tiny dragons in our house.
Still, our most common and revelatory conflicts involve choices in entertainment, since our preferences of course rarely coincide: I gravitate toward science fiction, fantasy, and horror, while my wife loves comedies about a man and woman who meet and seem like complete opposites until, after a series of improbable encounters, they fall in love with each other; it is the archetypal plot of all chick flicks, and a story line that my wife may feel has special relevance to her own experience. Sometimes, though, instead of dragging me to such films, she will agree to watch something that I want to see; for example, I recall one Saturday night, when in keeping with our typically exciting and glamorous lifestyle, we were sitting at home in front of the television. Scrolling through the various options available, I noticed the film Revenge of the Creature (1955) and cautiously opined that I would like to turn to that channel, since I had not seen the film in over twenty years. Uncharacteristically, my wife accepted that decision.
As this admittedly less-than-classic film unfolded, my wife, displaying a sincere desire to comprehend why anyone on Earth would want to watch such a movie, kept asking the sorts of logical questions that would occur to any rational viewer. Can’t everyone see that this purportedly terrifying “monster” is really just a man wearing a rubber suit? Couldn’t they have found some decent actors for these parts? Why would a scaly fish-man be sexually attracted to a normal-looking human woman? And why are people afraid of this aquatic creature, when all they have to do to remain safe is to stay away from the water?
In response, I might have said, there are some things that a man shouldn’t have to explain; but the answers are not hard to provide. The shoddy special effects and inadequate acting so typical of 1950s science fiction films are actually key elements in their appeal, since they convey an important message: that these are stories about characters that rich, powerful, successful people simply don’t care about and can’t identify with. Thus, these cheap, hastily-made films precisely reflect the marginalized status of the social outcasts they focus on and hope to attract. The outré physical appearance of the monster is merely a metaphor for the ways that the outsiders and misfits often attracted to science fiction feel psychologically different from others, and the monster’s biologically improbable lusts embody the nerd’s fervent longings to date the beautiful high school cheerleaders that he knows in advance will always reject him. And because being abhorred by society can drive people to both love themselves, and hate themselves, with unusual fervor, the behavior of the monster’s potential victims, as well as the monster’s behavior, is designed to mirror the feelings of the targeted filmgoers: characters deliberately place themselves in close proximity to the monster, and then scream in horror when the monster appears, because they, like the monster itself, both love the monster and hate the monster.
More recently, some discord arose when we went to see the Cal State Fullerton production of Bat Boy: The Musical, a rare form of entertainment with some appeal for both of us: I love science fiction, and my wife loves musicals, so why not go see a science fiction musical? But afterwards, I surprised my wife with an angry reaction when she said that the show reminded her of the Walt Disney film and musical Beauty and the Beast – because to me, that attractive but irksome romance represents the illusory, comforting, Hollywood version of the monster story, built upon the false assumptions that if society’s monsters can be domesticated a little bit, and if society’s citizens can learn to be a little bit more understanding of monsters, then the monsters can become genuine members of society, both loving and loved, thoroughly and harmoniously integrated into the social order. But the people whose aberrant personalities make them real-life monsters know that it’s all a lie; they know that no matter how hard they try, and no matter how hard others try, they can never be like normal people, and they can never be comfortable in normal society. This is the hard truth long ago recognized by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster, who ultimately resolves to leave the civilized world to live and die in the wilderness, and expressed more succinctly by his most memorable cinematic embodiment, Boris Karloff, when he looks at his intended companion in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and announces that “We belong dead,” there being no place for them in this world of normal people. And Bat Boy: The Musical, after dangerously flirting with the false promise of Beauty and the Beast in its upbeat first act, finally faces up to facts and has its titular hero similarly request, and receive, death. In sum, the concluding song may tell audiences to “Love Your Bat Boy,” but inasmuch as the cast members are singing this while they carry his corpse around, the real message is that such relationships will never work out. To compare all of this to Beauty and the Beast, simply because of parallel scenes involving pursuing mobs, is to miss the point of the entire musical. I ended the discussion by telling my wife, “You have to be born Bat Boy to know how it feels,” and sadly, I wasn’t entirely kidding.
To be sure, I know that today, many science fiction fans can happily coexist with people who do not share their interests because they have been drawn into the fold by the new forms of science fiction, created by and for people with good social skills and conventional viewpoints and distinguished by lavish budgets, state-of-the-art special effects, capable actors, and road-tested happy endings. They are the people who enjoy the various Star Trek television series, typically centered upon the saga of how strange misfits like Spock, Data, and Seven of Nine are gradually accepted by crewmates and learn how to become fully human, and other similarly ameliorative distortions of the harsh realities conveyed in films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and its sequels. And did I imply that my wife dislikes all science fiction films? It isn’t true, because there is at least one science fiction film that she absolutely adores: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), that ultimate, abominable exercise in reconsidering the weird outsider as a charming friend which I have regularly excoriated as the worst science fiction film ever made. If you also regard E.T. as your favorite science fiction film, then, you are the sort of person who would have no difficulty getting along with people like my wife. You are, from my perspective, one of them. But I grew up with a different sort of science fiction, created by and for people like me who saw themselves as society’s rejects, and that is the core issue that now separates me from my wife.
At this point, some may detect a subtle, or not-so-subtle, contradiction in this developing argument. I have said that films affirming the impossibility of relationships between strange outsiders and normal people are truthful, whereas films indicating that such relationships can be established are annoyingly delusional. Yet as I write this, I am, as a self-identified strange outsider, approaching the twenty-seventh anniversary of my marriage to a woman who would happily identify herself as a normal person. How can I say such things can’t happen when I would appear to represent a living, breathing counterexample? Well, what my wife and I have achieved during those twenty-seven years is something quite different from what happened in Beauty and the Beast, as is illustrated by a third kind of science fiction film in which the monster survives and establishes a carefully calibrated bond with a human woman founded upon mutual respect, an understanding of their differences, and a considerable amount of distance. The best example here would be the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and its central couple, the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and secretary Helen Benson (Patricia Neal). Clearly, they are attracted to each other; clearly, they form a strong emotional connection based on their mutual fondness for her son Bobby and their commitment to peaceful coexistence; and clearly, they become romantically interested in each other while fully recognizing that they are also fundamentally disparate sorts of beings. Yet Hollywood cannot allow Klaatu and Helen to passionately kiss, get married, and buy a home in the suburbs (the way my wife wanted the film to end), because romantic couples in films, despite their superficial differences, must ultimately be presented as true soulmates, properly destined for a lifetime of harmonious union. And obviously, people like Klaatu and Helen can never be soulmates of this kind. Thus, to symbolize the perpetual and unavoidable division between them, the story had to end with Klaatu returning to outer space, still spiritually united with Helen (who significantly rejects her other suitor and is left with no other companion) but physically separated from her. Precisely the same scenario was repeated more recently in that brilliant reconstruction of the 1950s science fiction film, Alien Trespass (2009), wherein another alien, Urp (Eric McCormack), falls in love with a responsive human woman, Tammy (Jenni Baird), but is finally compelled to return home while she remains alone on Earth, still longing for the company of her unusual acquaintance while she leaves town, alone, to seek her destiny.
And that is what largely explains the endurance of our marriage (something which has surely surprised most of our friends): a certain degree of separation. Even during our honeymoon, my wife realized that I needed some time to be by myself, and over the years, we have come to spend many of our evenings apart, as I sit at the computer while my wife talks to friends on the telephone or watches true-crime or medical dramas on television. It may seem an unusual sort of marriage, and my many detractors may seize upon this description of my behavior as proof that I am indeed a contemptible creep. (Fortunately, I have been schooled by bad science fiction films to care little about the opinions of the sorts of people who pick up torches and pitchforks in response to monsters.) Yet this probably represents the only way to make a mixed marriage work. After all, if one endeavors to imagine an alternate ending to The Day the Earth Stood Still wherein Klaatu settles down in Washington, D.C. with Helen as Earth’s new ambassador from beyond, it should be clear that the relationship would necessarily involve many nights when Helen and Bobby would sit at home by themselves while Klaatu was hard at work in his flying saucer with Gort and the other machines. No doubt Klaatu would often feel guilty, as I do, about his need to be by himself and he would often wonder, as I do, why his wife puts up with him.
Still, my marriage cannot be entirely attributed to the saint-like patience of a remarkable woman burdened with an eccentric husband – because, while we joke about being complete opposites in all respects, ranging from basic personality traits to the way we squeeze toothpaste tubes (she squeezes in the middle, I squeeze at the end), we actually do have some significant things in common: an absolute commitment to the well-being and educational success of our children, a fondness for cats, frugal spending habits, and similar (Democratic) political beliefs and (not very) religious beliefs. We regularly communicate and work together toward our shared goals even while recognizing that we also to a large extent must lead separate lives. Had we instead foolishly strived for a lifetime of complete “togetherness” (that dubious ideal of married life first promoted in the 1950s, and surely a factor in the immediate increase in the rate of divorce), and spent our every waking moment in constant contact, the marriage undoubtedly would have collapsed long ago.
As already intimated, I recognize that reflections of this kind may be becoming incomprehensible to readers in an era when science fiction has been thoroughly integrated into the world of mainstream entertainment, and the aberrant science fiction films of the 1950s that appealed to society’s misfits are generally forgotten because they do not lend themselves to conventionally refashioned storylines that comfortingly deal with monsters in the preferred manner by either thoroughly humanizing them (E.T., My Favorite Martian, etc.) or thoroughly demonizing them (Alien, Predator, etc.). Thus, you may think that every science fiction film from the 1950s has already been remade, but consider how assiduously Hollywood producers have avoided remaking those films that feature disquietingly ambiguous aliens or monsters who are both heroes and villains, such as The Man from Planet X (1951), The Stranger from Venus (1954), the aforementioned The Creature from the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth (1955), and The Colossus of New York (1958). They are instead attracted to the films with aliens that embody absolute evil: The Thing (from Another World) (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955), and so on. And when they finally decided to tackle The Day the Earth Stood Still, the accountants who crafted that repugnant, “updated” version (2008) could obviously discern no profits to be made by featuring a distant but sympathetic alien like Rennie’s Klaatu or Urp, and instead essentially made its Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) a heartless villain, happy to begin slaughtering Earth’s billions of people because we have been insufficiently nice to our trees. When the phrase “science fiction fans” refers only to people who like films like this, there will be no reason to fear that such individuals will have any problems in relating to everyday society and bonding with its members. Already, I believe, today’s young people who feel alienated from the world are turning away from the bland, palatable science fiction of their generation and seeking consolation in other forms of entertainment. For example, my daughter Allison, who inherited her mother’s social skills, has found and married a man very much like her father (creating her own mixed marriage), but while her husband Steven was once a big fan of Isaac Asimov, he is now more interested in anime and online gaming than science fiction.
However, a better illustration of the changing tastes of today’s generation of nerds may be my son Jeremy, who has inherited more than a touch of his father’s odd personality. (My wife likes to joke that she married an alien, and later gave birth to an alien.) While he will occasionally appreciate a science fiction film (significantly, only those oldies-but-goodies that still appeal to outcasts like the original The Day the Earth Stood Still or 2001: A Space Odyssey , not any contemporary blockbusters), his favorite diversion is playing video games, interactive narratives often involving a lonely, unattractive individual, like Mario the Plumber, who must struggle through a world filled with hostile forces which kill him again and again until he might finally enjoy, at best, a brief kiss from a beautiful princess before returning to the fray. I hope that this young Klaatu will, like me, someday find his own Helen Benson, who will understand and appreciate his wonderful strangeness and provide him with sufficient space to be who he is. Such unlikely mixed marriages, as I can attest from my own experience, can work out just fine.