Let’s get something perfectly straight. The proponents of 21st century capitalism do not want to be your friend. As much as the likes of Starbucks and Apple might wax lyrical about fair-trade, rainforest friendly, organic, aspirational community funds,, they are not interested in improving your living standards, and they don’t care if you dream big, or live with dignity. They have only one true desire; —they want to bleed you like a stuck pig until your veins run dry, and their cups overflow with crimson cascades of our life-force. Metaphorically… more or less.
And we know it too. Capitalism, like any self-respecting cannibal, wears a human face — but it sits uneasily with us. Subconsciously we know that even in a world where it is the dominant ideology, it has all the sincerity of a crocodile’s grin. That’s why we all need a sanctuary — a place of refuge from the dull buzzing rhetoric of productivity, aspiration and progress that continuously echo round our heads every time we tune into society.
Unfortunately, in a world where businesses must continuously expand into new markets in order to profit, destroying everything unique in our lives through commodifying it to death, that rare idea of refuge is becoming increasingly hard to find. There seems to be only one make-shift shelter from this hideous whole-grain storm of wholesome rhetoric — an escape into darkness.
It’s what game designers describe as an uncanny valley effect,
where something is almost human but not quite
The fact that so much of our ‘escapism’ is into worlds that are literally a living hell says a lot about the disconnect between capitalist ideology and the reality it actually delivers. It’s what game designers describe as an uncanny valley effect, where something is almost human but not quite, and so becomes more unnaturally terrifying than something blatantly false.
Companies that have sponsored the murder of trade unionists, who would sooner put nets up to prevent sweat-shop workers jumping from their rooves than improve pay and conditions, try constantly to convince us they care about our enjoyment — and it is like being courted by a serial-killer. We are so desperate to escape from the unhinged pseudo-niceties surrounding us that we actively fantasise about the apocalypse — because at least the zombie horde never tried to charge us rent, and triffids never tried to be our friends. Within that realm though, the potential for something quite different, even radical exists. The opportunity to satirise the ills of the real world.
Welcome to Night Vale.
Night Vale, for the uninitiated, is the setting for one of the world’s most successful fiction pod-casts. Beautifully penned by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the show takes on the format of a twice-monthly community radio bulletin. It takes place in a dusty dystopia somewhere in the American South-West, where a shadowy, overbearing state monitor every waking — and occasionally non-waking — moment of their citizens lives. Occasional rifts in time and space also cause people to fall in and out of existence, a faceless old woman lives secretly in your house, and where the management literally are writhing, tentacled monsters.
Returning to my previous point; my present employers have 4 increasingly disturbing mottos designed to inspire the workforce: ‘Care more’, ‘Create legacy’, ‘Kill complexity’, and ‘Never rest’. NEVER. REST. In a world where every-day life is riddled with such disturbing Blairite rhetoric, is it any wonder I make my own escapes into the world of Night Vale, along with hundreds of thousands of others across the globe?
As the show passes its 3rd anniversary this week though, I would heartily recommend beginning your journey through the dusty little burg if you haven’t already. Fink and Cranor’s writing is sweet, weird, tinged with sadness, beauty and horror, and host Cecil Baldwin’s unwavering, dream-like delivery will become one of the most comforting sounds in your life. There is far more besides refuge offered in the now 70-strong back catalogue of episodes available for free on Pod-bay and YouTube though. Over the course of those 3 years, there have been two continuous interlinked storylines, and they have reflected and impacted upon each other, and told those who have listened something invaluable about the nature of escapism in the process.
Firstly, let’s discuss the saga involving Strex Corp, a business based in rival town Desert Bluffs, and their corporate take-over of Night Vale. Even in a surreal world of deadpan satire, we cannot escape the greedy encroachment of the free-market. Even in this graveyard of resistance, the corporate world leaks in to tarnish it.
their happiness is underwritten by a willingness
at any given moment to lapse into complete savagery
Strex, the company in question, are the ideological reflection of ‘caring’ capitalists in the real world. They put on a vile well-wishing veneer as long as they believe you are capable of meeting targets and remaining productive — however their happiness is underwritten by a willingness at any given moment to lapse into complete savagery. Kevin, their mindless and malevolent mouth-piece for example, extolls the virtues of togetherness and co-operation when it is towards the ends of his company. Stray beyond that though, and he has a penchant for redecorating his office, using a particular shade of red only found within human entrails.
It just sort of happens. You know, like straight relationships do.
Secondly, this story operates in conjunction with the ongoing romance between Cecil, the show’s protagonist, and Carlos, a scientist studying the bizarre goings on in the desert. This is certainly the aspect of the plot that seems to have most radically captured the fans’ imaginations — riddling Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit and so on with fan art of the relationship — and who can blame them? In a world of popular culture positively riddled with Sherlock-style queer-baiting, where depictions of same-sex relationships are only ever implied, and for shock value, it is genuinely astonishingly how nonchalantly the subject is handled. It just sort of happens. You know, like straight relationships do.
Strex, Desert Bluffs and Kevin have presented a constant barrier to their happiness since then though — and the fan-base who are so heavily invested in it to boot. That means the message delivered recently came with an added emotional clout — and it was a damned important message at that.
the couple come to a powerful conclusion — one many who
declared an interest in emigrating after the general election
could learn from
The situation came to a head in the 70th episode earlier this week. Without giving away what is undeniably a spectacular 3rd year anniversary special, the couple come to a powerful conclusion — one many who declared an interest in emigrating after the general election could learn from. Over the past year of episodes, the pair have battled with a decision of whether to leave the ever deteriorating Night Vale permanently in order to start a new life, looking for happiness in an alternative dimension. However, on the brink of leaving, they discover even there a blood-soaked office has appeared, housing the infamous Kevin within it, establishing a new centre of operations. It becomes clear wherever in the world, or in other worlds they go, simply high-tailing it away from Kevin and his exploitative cohorts will not solve anything in the long-run.
There’s a lot we can take from that. Back in May after the election result, faced with 5 years of Conservative majority, there were calls from many people here — varying in severity, delivery, and in destination, but all unified in the sentiment of “let’s get the hell out of here.” But what we need to realise, is that the one true sanctuary we can find from the ravages of an unjust world is not found at the end of an international flight, or an interdimensional portal.
Our true refuge, the one we can count on to never have a McDonalds or an Apple Store pop up inside it, lives within the hearts and minds of our loved ones. From there, from those solid foundations, we can build a better community and a better life from the ground up — and then we will truly escape. In the words of Cecil himself: “I can’t just leave it, I have to live it. Live it and make it better. Better for myself, for Carlos, for my friends… and for you listeners.”