Aaron R. Davis
Recently, I came across an item called Twenty Things Every Sci-Fi Nerd Should Own Physically and Emotionally. It was a list by one genre fan of the things that make a “real fan” and “entitle you to your very own Sci-Fi Nerd Badge.” Cute idea, I thought, and I did some commentary on it on my personal blog. My basic comment on it was that I thought it was too concerned with endless whining about a certain set of clichéd fan disappointments (the Michael Bay Transformers movies suck, the Star Wars Special Editions suck, the Prequels suck). I don’t care for the idea of defining my character or my level of fandom by what I’ve been disappointed in, because I can get over my disappointments in a movie with a modicum of what I want to call rational maturity. I refuse to be the kind of geek who is still upset that a movie didn’t deliver in the way I hoped it would. Why be defined by your disappointments when genre has become so incredibly mainstream that you can pick and choose instead of having to watch some piece of garbage just because most science fiction movies are crap that goes straight to video, like in the late eighties?
I also didn’t like that the list was mostly about passive consumption instead of active fandom. I’m 35 and I’ve been a science fiction fan for as long as I can remember (helps that my mother was one, too, and made me sit down and watch Cosmos with her when I was four). Surely there were other people who were also part of mailing lists, especially in the days before the Internet. Or guys who had to really scrape to have a decent Dungeons & Dragons group to play in (something I never had, though the few times I played they were fun, even when my best friend’s sister was throwing dice at me). There was nothing on the list about at least having to travel to the few comic book stores you could find just to track something down, back before we could just steal comics online with a minimum of effort, and only one item that involved actually reading a book. Seriously, when did fandom start leaving literature behind entirely?
Those were my problems with the list: too much about disappointment defining you, too much about being a consumer, no interest in shared experience or reading.
Apparently the disappointments for others were that they felt left out.
Now, this one I find ironic, and honestly not in a funny way. Most of us, at least if you’re my age or over, have had the experience of being totally marginalized because of our nerdy interests. I remember once being told by some gleeful idiot in junior high who caught me drawing a picture of Thor in history class that “Comics are in!” because of the recent Batman movie, and I wanted to punch him in the face. Who was this ass, who would have made fun of me the year before, to tell me that the comics I’d been reading for years were suddenly “in”? By that point, my interests (along with my lack of interest or ability in sports and my being overweight) had already made me a withdrawn outcast, the last thing I wanted was some schmuck telling me that I now had some kind of approval for interests I was going to have with or without him. It was actually a pretty decent lesson in how the approval of the mainstream is superficial, capricious and totally meaningless.
But I think probably every fan, regardless of age, has had the feeling of being marginalized even with genre fandom. And that’s the thing that I find unforgivable. Have you ever tried to be part of a fan group, like a mailing list or a message board, only to have someone lecture you on why you’re not a “real” fan of something, or how much smarter they are than you, or how your opinion is idiotic? It’s happened to me on a number of occasions, and it’s why I stopped participating in fan groups when I was in my twenties. Because who wants to be around people like that?
I think, on the one hand, it’s good to know right away that just because people share your interests doesn’t mean that they can’t also be petty, boorish loudmouths with an unrelenting drive to prove to everyone within virtual earshot how smart they are. But on the other hand, do these people ever have any idea how many fans they’re unmaking? And when you see someone whining about how their favorite show was canceled because it never had enough viewers, and then doing their best to push people away from ever being an active fan of that show with their childish know-it-all-ism, it’s truly a moment of clarity. That’s when you realize that there are people who will marginalize themselves as much as they can just to have something they feel, in their minds, is truly theirs. They don’t want to share the experience; they just want you to know that you can never love it as intensely as they do. And when it comes to the recent mainstreaming of genre, they’re probably scared of losing their special self-given status.
It’s basically geek hipsterism. I’ve been seeing it for a long time. I once read a particularly irritating article on Robert E. Howard that was titled “My Favorite Author Is More Obscure Than Yours.” I’m still not sure what’s supposed to be so self-congratulatory about that. Is it a contest? What do you win? What is it that one loves so much about themselves when they’ve got almost no one else to talk to their favorite author about?
The other form of geek hipsterism, and this is what some of the comments showed on my post on my personal blog, is the “I was there first” declaration. Some people thought the list was pointless because it was so obviously made by someone around my age or a little younger. Now, some people just pointed out that they were a bit too old for some of the list items, and opined that they would’ve had other outward shows of geekdom because they were born a bit earlier, like having a Six Million Dollar Man doll or waiting in cinema lines to see Star Wars. But some of it had this air of “This list and all your experiences don’t count because you weren’t physically old enough to watch Battlestar Galactica in its original run!” (Which I did, except I was four at the time.)
That’s almost worse than the self-marginalization to me. It basically says that no one can be a true nerd but “me,” provided whoever is saying that was simply born at an earlier time. And that seems like a desperate stab at relevance, misguidedly brought about by insulting someone for being younger than you. There’s a difference between “Well, bear in mind that I was watching The Twilight Zone when it was originally airing” and “You’ll never be a true science fiction nerd unless you saw Godzilla, King of the Monsters in its original theatrical run.” When I see that, I just want to counter with “You’ll never be a true fan unless you were at the first Hugo Awards” or “unless you saw A Trip to the Moon when it was originally released in 1902.” Because, seriously, when it comes down to penalizing someone for being a wannabe because they’re younger than you, what the hell is the determination anymore?
Look, I know there are people who really want to hold on to their geek cred, especially since genre is so mainstream now, but once it starts making you look like a petty ass, do you really think it’s doing you any favors? If you’re defined by your disappointments, if you refuse to accept another person’s experience of geekdom because of their age, if the only reason you interact with other geeks is to remind them that you love something more than they do or you know more about it or that you were there when Peter David and Todd McFarlane had their debate over Image Comics, then you’re not a very good geek, but you’re a great cranky old shut-in.
Geek is a state of mind, baby. It’s not owning something, it’s not being angry at George Lucas, it’s not having an out of control ego, and it’s not where you shop. It’s about loving something and living it, regardless of approval or fashion or levels of acceptance. It’s living geek.
Live geek and prosper. Grok me?
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org