Alan Moore is perhaps best known for his graphic novel work–Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V For Vendetta, too name a few. His most recent venture, Dodgem Logic, is an underground magazine which seems to be about as quirky as they come (I might get myself an issue for the hell of it over Christmas break). Issue #4 is of particular interest to fans of science fiction. In it, Moore has an article about science fiction in America that makes a number of interesting points about why science fiction seems to be a particularly prevalent mode of literary discourse in American literature. It’s not a secret that the U.S. has been one of the top producers of science fiction (broadly defined), though the United Kingdom was certainly one of the first to build up a steady SF readership (according to my understanding of SF history). Moore, however, argues that America is unique largely because of how it attempts to represent itself to other nations. I’ll talk about that in my next post, since it relates directly to the intimate connection that Moore seems to set up between America and its propensity for science fiction stories. For now, though, it is necessary to disentangle a few problems with Moore’s initial logic, since it sets the foundation for how Moore thinks about America and science fiction.
Most nations when required to stave up national identity, perhaps in times of difficulty, will call on reserves of national history or mythology. In Britain, for example, leaders will routinely summon up the spirit of the Blitz, of Winston Churchill or King Arthur when attempting to persuade the country to accept something that it isn’t going to like, like public spending cutbacks or a costly foreign conflict. In effect, what most nations are trying to communicate is ‘Look at what we were.’ America, conversely, is only a little over two hundred years old and its brief history is largely one of genocide and slavery, things that most usually require a veil drawn over them rather than celebration. Lacking myth or folklore and without a reservation of history to plunder, is America instead employing its projected science fiction futures to say ‘Look at what we will be?’
There are two enormous problems here. The first is that Moore assumes the United States lacks its own mythical framework due to its age (234). To say that this statement is patently false is to point out the ridiculously obvious, even to less educated Americans than myself. Americans are notorious for inventing their own mythologies and folktales (but, then, so are humans in general). What is unusual about our myth-building, as compared to, say, the United Kingdom (where Moore is from), is that most of our myths can be refuted by historical evidence. The story of George Washington and the cherry tree, for example, is completely fictitious, yet remains a staple in elementary schools as a morality tale. That’s not to say that George Washington wasn’t a great man, just that the stories we’ve concocted about him are extensions of the mythic birth of our nation. George Washington, of course, is not the only mythologized figure in U.S. history, as almost all of the Founding Fathers and the dozens of great American figures that followed them have been appropriated by mythical thinking and folkloric traditions. How else do you explain the near obsessive love for figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and so on? Half of them were slave owners, some had affairs with women (sometimes more than one), some participated in colonialism/imperialism and/or the extermination of indigenous peoples, and so on; all of them have been appropriated by mythology and folklore, masking, as Moore suggests, much of what made them flawed human beings.
Why Americans adopt the myths and folktales about U.S history and the lands around us is something I can’t quite explain, since I am not an expert on mythology or folklore. What I do know is that the U.S. is not devoid of its own myths and folktales; it’s rife with them. Moore’s assertion that we lack myth, folklore, and a history to draw from is like suggesting that there were no lingering cultural effects from the Anglo-Saxons following the Norman Conquests. Both statements are practically myths themselves. But the problem here seems to be the same problem nationalism is quite apt to produce: false perspective founded on ignorance. Americans are perhaps most known for this due to our heavy media presence. Our leaders and regular citizens seem incapable of having a fixed head when it comes to the identities of other nations, often getting things so drastically wrong as to be laughable. The same is true of people who identify with other nationalities: they, as much as Americans, adopt perspectives of other nations based on inaccurate assumptions. This is part of nationalist identity, which most of us participate in even if we don’t mean to.
As for the second issue in the above quote: I think it is interesting that Moore makes his argument about the U.S. and its missing mythical mythical/folkloric framework while also explaining how England is different by citing two things that are fairly recent even by U.S. standards (the Blitz and Winston Churchill). Of all the things he could point to, it seems odd that he would opt primarily for recent figures/events instead of choosing from the rich history of real and imagined British figures/events, such as Britain’s various kings and queens, its various mythic creatures, and so forth. World War 2 references, it seems to me, lack the power that the King Arthur reference evokes–a figure who is as important to British history (even with his historical question-ability) as George Washington is to U.S. history (who undoubtedly existed, but, like Arthur, had a great deal of myths attached to him over history).
But there is a line of thought here that I think is worth noting. Moore is not wrong when he points to America’s frequent references to its future and how that is attached to its prominent science fiction field. I’ll save that for a second post so you’ll have something to look forward to.
1) If anyone can think of any female figures who have been appropriated by mythological or folkloric traditions, I’d appreciate a comment on this thread. I wanted to include women in my discussion, but almost all of the significant women in U.S. history predating 1960 (where I think the propensity for mythologizing tapers off due to the rise of media culture) haven’t been turned into mythical figures as far as I can tell. Susan B. Anthony, Harriett Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc. all seem to have been largely left “pure” (with the exception, perhaps, to Tubman, though I can’t say for sure).
2) When I say “ignorance,” I do not mean that in a negative way. We are all ignorant of something.