We lost science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer a few weeks ago, and a few weeks before that, I said farewell to actors Patrick McGoohan and Ricardo Montalban. This may not mean much to you, but these three gentlemen, among many others, provided me with an important commodity when I was growing up: imaginary people.
Traditionally, I suppose, one is supposed to mourn the verdant green fields of one's youth, or the traditional ways that butter was churned or that sinners were stoned to death in one's native village. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb, where the fields had long since been plowed under for subdivisions, and the only thing that's changed since I left are the anchor stores in the local mall.
I spent my youth in galaxies far, far away, and not just that one. In fact, my physical environment — I can only remember it hazily, but I think this is right — seemed to be designed to provide the maximum number of escape hatches from the real world. There were TVs in the basement, living room and my bedroom. We had one of the first Atari video game consoles. My bookcases were so overloaded with cheap paperback science fiction books, they threatened to topple over on me every time I pulled another tawdry story off the shelf, sending me off on a more permanent trip to another world.
But compared to kids growing up today, of course, I was Amish. For example, as much as I wanted to, say, go join Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I had to settle for sitting in my bedroom and muttering to myself, "Why, yes, Aragorn, I'll be happy to help ... and this? This little thing? This is called an assault rifle."
Today, you turn up your PC, put on your headphones, sign up for Lord of the Rings Online, and just, you know, go there. You can spend your whole life talking and playing with and beating up imaginary people, and from all accounts, many do.
Let me say, from the experience of years, that I'm not sure this is good for us. Real people — maybe you've heard this — are slightly more difficult to handle than imaginary people. Even more than Balrogs; and Balrogs, as everybody knows, are a pain. I'm raising children now — a challenge, by the way, on which J.R.R. Tolkien sheds no light at all — and I see them drawn to the flickering, dimly lit holes leading from our house to the other worlds — the TVs and movies and computer games — and I can understand the almost overwhelming urge to crawl through. But I also wonder if, like me, when they grow up and have to say farewell to childish things, they'll have nothing real to let go of.
Peter Sagal is the host of NPR's weekly news quiz show Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me.