In honor of World Book Day, a discussion of weird people in context of the two books I’ve read so far in 2016.
Weird people are my favorite.
Not “I have someone in my basement” weird. Just “geeky, quirky, is currently writing a book about zombie warlords from space” weird. I guess “writing a book in which a character has someone in their basement” weird is also fine. As long as the book isn’t endorsing that behavior.
But I digress.
Weird people are my favorite because they have some of the most interesting ideas. Not only that, they get very invested in those ideas. They embrace what the mainstream isn’t looking at yet. They make content because they want to make it, not because it’s necessarily the most profitable field at that time. And occasionally that content is not only brilliant, it’s terrifying.
Welcome to Night Vale is a strange and wonderful podcast told from the perspective of Cecil, the energetic host of Night Vale Community Radio. Cecil may or may not be human. He does have a human boyfriend, Carlos, the scientist. But last year he got into some trouble with Hiram McDaniels, literal five-headed dragon, so species is kind of irrelevant at this point. Cecil is also convinced that mountains are a myth, so there’s that.
I love WTNV because it’s smart, entertaining, and creepy as hell. The town of Night Vale is constantly being harangued by sentient glow clouds that rain animal carcasses (and then run for the PTA), hooded figures that frequent the dog park (which is absolutely forbidden to dogs), and any other weird science fiction/fantasy/horror movie concept that you can imagine.
However, what’s really groundbreaking about WTNV isn’t its creative world, but its explicitly diverse cast of characters. Most of the characters on the show are never physically described and are rarely voiced by their own actors (the show is almost entirely voiced by Cecil Baldwin), which lets listeners form their own mental image of who they are and what they look like. That’s a concept that is often cited by writers as a way for anyone to project their own reality onto a creative work, but it doesn’t always work. For too many people, the default is always white, heterosexual, and cisgendered, meaning that implicit diversity doesn’t function well in the Western world. Luckily for us, WTNV takes it further than that.
The main characters are an explicitly interracial gay couple (possibly interspecies, but let’s just stick with interracial for now). There are characters that are explicitly people of color, disabled, or non-conforming to the gender binary. There once was-- and I am not making this up-- a plotline in which an elementary school girl was born as an adult male hand, and the residents of Night Vale accepted this completely and accommodated her needs. There is not only a balance of male and female characters, the female characters are shown in varying positions of power, such as manager and mayor.
And the best part? None of this is a big deal. For god’s sake, the librarians are terrifying creatures that kill any book lovers who dare venture into the library, they have bigger things to worry about than if the radio host is gay. Everyone is just-- wait for it, Hollywood-- a character who is not defined by any trope born from one aspect of their humanity.
Boom. Mic drop.
Wait, no, sorry. The best part is that not only are all of these characters representative of a wide range of human experiences, it’s that when they are voiced by actors, WTNV gets actors that reflect their characters. Black characters are played by black actors. Queer characters are played by queer actors. This was a conscious decision, but it wasn’t a particularly difficult one-- why should this be such a revolutionary idea? (I’m looking at you, Emma Stone, Jake Gyllenhaal, and all the other actors and film companies who have screwed this up. I don’t forget.)
The only way they could have made this podcast better was if they wrote a book set in Night Vale focusing on two women who, through different motivations, end up venturing together to solve a mystery and potentially save Night Vale.
Welcome to Night Vale, a novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, was the first book I read in 2016. It’s… Well, it’s basically just like the podcast, only a lot longer and focused almost exclusively on Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton, two residents of Night Vale. I’m not sure I would recommend it to people who haven’t listened to the podcast-- although it’s a stand-alone story, the lore of Night Vale is present everywhere-- but for those who are even casual fans of the podcast, it’s a wonderful expansion of that world. (Although it could be a good way to get non-podcast listeners more open to the full Night Vale experience-- maybe I’ll experiment with that.) I, for one, would enjoy a follow-up book all about Dana, the current mayor of Night Vale.
Speaking of weird books (that transition though… #worldbookday), the second book I read in 2016 was You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by actual real-life weird person Felicia Day. Felicia Day has been one of my favorites for a long time, due to her talent on Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Eureka, and just general geeky awesomeness. More significantly in her work as a creator, she is the genius behind the web show The Guild and the YouTube channel/website/curator of geeky awesomeness (sensing a theme yet?) Geek and Sundry. (The theme is geekdom. That is the theme.)
Her book, which came to me highly recommended by my mom, gave me a whole new respect of her journey. Day wrote candidly about her unconventional childhood, harmful experiences with online gaming addiction, mental health, and her overwhelming drive to make content she’s passionate about. This drive doesn’t always serve her well (as the chapter detailing her stressful obsession with work and eventual breakdown will attest), but she also has been able to achieve success in a world that barely existed when she started working in it-- the geeky Internet.
I would consider Felicia Day one of my role models, even though that would probably make her very nervous. Don’t worry, I’m not demanding that you be perfect for me-- I’m incredibly pleased that you’re not. Felicia Day matters to me because she’s smart, hard-working, and dares to be a nerdy woman on the Internet, even when the world is constantly telling her that she is unwelcome. I see it happen all the time: a woman gets a blog post written about how terrible she is. A woman gets inappropriate and unsolicited advances. A woman gets harassed, death threats, rape threats, her address gets posted publicly, her world is viciously attacked from all sides.
Why is it so dangerous for us? I don’t know. But I do know that women like Felicia Day both stubbornly continue to produce incredible content and call out the harassers for their disgusting behavior. As long as there are these people on my side of this fight, I know that I can be a part of this beautiful world-- not without fear, because that sadly always exists for women on the Internet-- but with the confidence that I’m not alone.
Weird people are my favorite. Weird people make the stuff that I love to read, watch, and listen to. Weird people make the stuff that feels like a breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong, mainstream media, I like parts of you too-- but nothing feels as good as experiencing something just a little bit different