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What’s in a Geek-Off?

Everybody knows the answer is 'Batman'. If it weren't the answer, geeks would have to concede that brawn beats brains.

Everybody knows the answer is ‘Batman’. If it weren’t the answer, geeks would have to concede that brawn beats brains.

The comic book store argument is a staple of the geek subculture. You’ve seen it on The Big Bang Theory dozens of times: Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard sitting around their living room, arguing until they’re blue in the face over whether Thor’s Hammer can penetrate Cap’s Shield, or what the difference is (or ought to be) between zombies and mummies. As much as I gripe sometimes of the stereotyping of geekdom by that show, I do have to admit in that one respect they are generally spot-on. It is a thing. It happens all the time.

But what is the point? They aren’t real, so why bother?

Why do I bother critiquing things like zombies, giant robots, and mermaids? As one (unusually offended) commenter asked:

Do you go around telling kids there’s no Santa Clause [sic], too?

Let’s ignore the spelling error for a moment and take for granted that the commenter in question is not referring to the Tim Allen film franchise, both loved and admired by all humanity (he gets fat by magic – comedy gold!). Let’s engage the essence of the critique here: why ruin all the fun? It’s a worthwhile question, and it does deserve an answer.

Geeks have these conversations because they are fun. They are fun in the same way that analyzing literature is fun, or critiquing the fashion choices on the red carpet is fun, or really any act where you pass judgment on something is fun. It isn’t just geeks who do this – we all do this. Having opinions and backing them up with arguments is part of the deal with being able to think. Can such arguments go off the rails? Sure they can. Conflicting opinions can often be confused with personal rancor, feelings can get hurt, and all enjoyment can get sucked away by some guy crossing the line. Most of the time, though, this doesn’t happen.

Part of what makes these geek conversations unique is the fact that their subject matter is often entirely fictional. There is no empirical definition for the weight of Thor’s Hammer, only what can be inferred by circumstance. I once had an argument with a guy about how lightsaber duels weren’t reflective of what a duel with a plasma sword would really look like. My critique was oriented around the supposition that the plasma wouldn’t have the same mass that the sabers seemed to when fighting – less mass means less inertia, which means a whole different set of fighting techniques become possible, thus changing the duel. His argument was that we had no way of knowing how densely packed the plasma was in the blade, therefore it may have the same mass as a lightweight sword of the same length. I came back by citing the conservation of mass – if the plasma had that much mass, where did it go when the blade retracted? Lightsaber hilts do not get visibly heavier when shut off, therefore…

You get the idea.

These conversations are often fun. They ask us to think and analyze what we observe and to draw conclusions from it. This is how human beings learn. This is how we adapt and change. If nobody asked such questions, nothing new would happen. Now, granted, science fiction and fantasy franchises aren’t the most important thing in the world to debate, but to equate critiquing their conventions with ruining Santa Claus for little kids is unfair. For one thing, that implies that scifi/fantasy is only for children, which I object to in the most strenuous terms possible (I mean, have you even read Freud or Jung?). For another, that suggests that we are having this conversation for the express purpose of ruining something for someone else. Not true. We’re trying to change it, in our small way. We’re trying to say it can be better. We try not to have these arguments with people who don’t care or don’t want to hear them (at least the more socially facile of us do) – the last thing a geek really wants to do is ruin somebody’s fun. If you like the old thing, well fine – opinions differ. If you have such a problem with my disagreement, offer me a robust defense. Debate it.

It should be fun.

Life is Not the Cafeteria

I was at a party the other day where it came up that I’m a science fiction writer. The guy I was speaking to seemed to deflate at my admission, as though I had just admitted to being a violent anarchist or something and found he no longer had anything to talk to me about. I added, for his benefit, that writing science fiction is not the sum of my whole life’s experience and that I have alternate interests. He brightened significantly at this, congratulated me, and added “cause, you know, some of those guys, that’s all they do.”

Now this was a party among many of my new neighbors, so it wasn’t really in my interest to start laying into the guy. Also, he seemed like a perfectly nice fellow and thought that what he was saying was genuinely complimentary. I did, however, want to ask him something: “Which guys? Please list for me all the geeks you know and describe how SF/F is all they care about. Let’s hear it.”

I’d bet real money that the dude doesn’t know a single one.

We are not this guy.

As a straight white Protestant American male, I really can’t claim any real idea of what it’s like to be discriminated against. I think, however, that the closest I come is being able to self-identify as a ‘geek’. I get really, really tired of people pigeonholing who I am, where my interests lie, what my knowledge consists of, and in what ways my social skills have formed as a result of me confessing an affinity for science fiction and fantasy stories. Even as geek-dom becomes ‘cool’, it has only become so as a kind of stereotype. To the world, if I tell them I like Star Wars and play role-playing games, they assume I’m Dr. Sheldon Cooper or, if they’re being charitable, his roommate Leonard. I’m not.

Sheldon Cooper is a socially dysfunctional, arguably autistic physicist with a host of emotional problems. He was picked on in high school, he’s a scientific genius, and he’s obsessed with comic books. Are there geeks like him out there? Yeah, there are a few, I’m sure. I can’t with any honesty say they’re all that common. There aren’t a lot of Howards or Rajs, either. Those characters are caricatures, picking the most embarrassing aspects of some folks in the geek community and condensing them into a trio of ridiculous people who bear passing resemblance to the actual population of geeks out there.

I am a geek. I play (and write) roleplaying games, I write science fiction stories, fantasy novels, like Star Trek, and have read widely in the specfic genres. I also am 6’2″, 200lbs and in pretty good shape. I was a varsity athlete in swimming in high school, earning a letter all four years, and am a reasonably good cyclist besides. I was a professional improv comedian for four years following college. I am a clear speaker, an engaging conversationalist, a good storyteller, and can pick up on most social clues as well as anybody else. I am not afraid of women, am married to a beautiful woman, and also have many female friends. I like camping, I’m a decent sailor, I know how to start a campfire, and I can perform all the standard physical labor-type things men like to thump their chests over. I don’t know a hell of a lot about computers and am not terribly interested in technical specifications of obscure computer components. I don’t have an i-anything and my cell phone is practically five years old by now.

I’m not exceptional. Many of the geeks I know are performers, nurses, athletes, and so on. Some of them study martial arts, others are great dancers, and still others seem to have a never-ending rotation of attractive women they are dating/sleeping with/whatever. They are as likely to love football as anybody else.  They play Dungeons and Dragons and aren’t ashamed of it, and it has no deleterious effect on their lives. The idea that it is somehow requisite that those who enjoy stuff like that are some kind of basement-dwelling troglodytes is, frankly, offensive.

Thing is, though, that not enough geeks are actually offended by it. We often ascribe to the ‘high school cafeteria’ model of society, wherein we slot ourselves into a particular clique and stick to that table, unwilling to travel across the aisle for fear of sticking out. Now, granted, I will concede that many geeks fit into various aspects of the geek stereotype, but few of them are so one-dimensional as to be defined by all or even most of them. You can’t say those things about them with any more accuracy than you can say, for instance, that all Irish people are drunks or all Italians know people in the Mafia or all Asians are bad drivers. It just isn’t true, and adhering to those beliefs is ignorant.

Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. For the first time in my life, there are decent odds I can point out that I write science fiction or that I play roleplaying games at a party and folks will be actively interested in what it is and why I like it. Geeks enjoy a certain mystique these days, it’s true. Mystique, though, isn’t the same as acceptance.