I seem to be finding myself in a never-ending hall of mirrors when it comes to talking about pop culture; I've now written six columns talking about "storytelling engines", which was at least six more columns than I expected to be, and my discussion of golden ages in pop culture threw up the "archive factor", and while I was talking about that, I wound up coming up with the term "cult fiction." God help me if I come up with some new weird term this time; I already feel like I'm babbling self-indulgently as it is when I talk about this stuff, and this paragraph isn't helping one little bit.
But I do think I'm onto something with this "cult fiction" idea, because I think there is a certain common thread that links movies, TV shows, books, et cetera, beyond just "it's science fiction", or "it's fantasy", or "it's action-adventure." There's a certain ethos to them that seems to attract a certain sort of person; sit a person down who likes science fiction in front of a TV set showing 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', for example, and odds are it will be exactly the sort of thing they're into, even if they didn't necessarily know it before they watched it. There's a common thread that links 'Firefly', 'Doctor Who', 'Alias', 'Heroes', 'Mr. Show', 'Shaun of the Dead', 'Rumble in the Bronx', 'Casino Royale', Harry Potter, the X-Men, and 'Better Off Dead' in such a way that geeks like me will give them a look, even if they turn out not to like them. But what is it?
Ultimately, I think the only thing they have in common is that they all present the world, in some way, as stranger than real life. This is most overt in science-fiction, which is why I think that it all tends to get lumped in as sci-fi, but even the non-science-fiction series like '24' or 'Alias' show a world which is bigger, more dangerous, more exciting, and more vivid than the one we live in every day. (And sketch comedy shows, almost by definition, explore a "stranger than life" idea to its logical conclusion--like the Lumberjack sketch, for example.) I think this is what we're attracted to, the idea that we live in a super-interesting universe, and that these are looks around the corner to the bits that we don't usually see. Bits where kids can build a working space shuttle out of stuff they send away from on cereal boxes, bits where hidden wizard academies teach the sorcerers of tomorrow; bits, in short, that we can always imagine ourselves just about to stumble into.
"Stranger than life." It's as good a definition for "cult fiction" as anything.