Why we geeked
At midnight tonight, the whole world will proclaim its geekness.
That’s when Star Wars: The Force Awakens officially opens, and it may go on to be the biggest box office hit to date.
No one is going to hide the fact that they are going to the movie.
No one is going to hide a Star Wars shirt under a YourLocalSportsFranchiseHere shirt, and then take off the camouflage before going into the theatre.
Every mainstream news outlet on TV will have a story about it. Even The Economist has found not one, but multiple angles for stories.
It wasn’t always that way.
When I was a kid, loving science fiction and fantasy cut you out of the inner circle.
That doesn’t mean that we all hid it. I never hesitated to be seen reading a current science fiction novel…or one from the 1930s…or the 1800s.
I think it’s safe to say that there were a core of us who were never ashamed of being geeks. Some of us might find each other in school and hang out, but if we weren’t part of the social scene, so be it. We had worlds to visit.
I was lucky enough, in high school, to be able to take a science fiction elective. I had a wonderful teacher…we weren’t made to take the joy out of geeky literature in order to dissect it and look at it dispassionately in order to give it gravitas. We often got to choose or suggest books. My teacher was as willing to learn as to teach, which is one of the things that can make a great teacher.
As a result of that class, we did form a club, and we did publish a “fanzine”. We even had a library.
It’s safe to say, though, that while there were tremendous benefits to being a geek, there were costs, too.
So, why do it?
It’s easier to give a reason now: geek is the in crowd. The biggest movies, TV shows, and even some of the biggest books are geek-friendly. There is even a stereotype of people being fake geeks…I don’t find that to be impossible (I’m sure some geeks have pretended to be sports fans from time to time to fit in…not that some geeks aren’t big sports fans in reality and vice versa, of course), but I think it can be…unfairly belittling. For me, part of being a geek is embracing diversity, and that should include being accepting of people who don’t know the difference* between Star Wars and Star Trek, or are new to the party, or who like what you may derisively call “skiffy”.**
Embracing diversity: certainly, that’s one of the reasons people were geeks pre-1977 (when the first Star Wars movie was released and became a big hit).
While there is no question that geek-friendly works could be full of prejudice (racial, class, sexism…and a noted lack of diverse characters in terms of sexuality), they were also a place where an alien could be a hero, and women could be social equals.
Before I give some examples of that, I’d better define what I mean by geek-friendly, although I’ve done that before in the blog.
In a geek story, there is something to it that is impossible in consensus reality. It might be that there are dragons or spaceships or telepathy. For more of a discussion of that, see
Since they are outside of consensus reality, they have often been able to “get away” with showing things outside of social norms as well.
Let’s take the idea of women as social equals.
I wrote an appearance by Gerry Carlyle, the “Interplanetary Huntress”. Carlyle, who originally appeared in stories in the 1930s an 1940s, was not only a superior adventurer, she was the captain of the ship. Her love interest, a man, was clearly the less powerful one of the pair.
That would have been a very difficult sale to a mainstream audience.
Think it would have been tough in the 1930s?
How about the 1870s, when Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race had women as the dominant gender?
It was not unusual for people of different races and perhaps species to work together…even fall in love and have intimate relationships. After all, Dejah Thoris in the John Carter of Mars Barsoom stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs is not the same race…or species…or even, arguably, the same class of life (she may not be a mammal, like humans are…her species lays eggs).
One thing we were told as geeks: it didn’t matter who you were, or even what you were…you could contribute and be accepted.
Another reason to be a geek back then was that you saw and wanted to see that there could be more to the world than was generally believed.
A lot of fans of hard science fiction believed that, within the confines of current scientific thought, there were many more possibilities. That was sometimes the purpose of a science fiction story…to explore a possibility, perhaps to suggest it as an option.
For fantasy fans, it could be, “Don’t tell me what’s possible.” Anything could be true.
Geek-friendly literature has been described, in a belittling way as escapist, but yes, it could be that, too. When things in the real world didn’t look good, it could be fun to go to Narnia or Middle Earth. Now, it’s worth noting that if you could get to either of those places, it wasn’t likely to mean that your life would be any happier than it was in the “real world”. Both of them had some pretty horrible things happening in them, with an abundance of violence and a low life expectancy. “Escaping from” doesn’t necessarily mean you want no conflict. You might just want to get away from something for a while.
It could also simply be fun. 🙂 Yes, Oz had problems…there was violence, and a surprising predominance of slavery, but at least after the first book (which really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the stories), you weren’t going to die. You could have fun adventures and read a plethora of puns. We geeks would get criticized for being childish. Kids were encouraged to stop living a “fairy tale life”, and get serious. We didn’t agree that having an imagination and getting things accomplished were contradictory. With the rise of technology, our case was strongly made…imagination could be what made you a material success, not a failure. Maybe, if you were going to work on an assembly line, letting your mind wander wasn’t a good thing. You needed to focus on the physical reality in front of you. As jobs became more varied, that became less of the only option.
I’d say those are some of the main reasons, but whenever I write a post like this, I expect (and hope) that someone will add to it. So, I’ll ask you: if you were a geek before geek became cool, why did you do it? Do you agree with my assessment that you can openly be a fan of geek-friendly works now? Do you think that there were hardcore fans who weren’t ashamed, hardcore “realists” who were never going to accept it, and a large group in the middle that weren’t passionately for or against, and have now decided it’s not a bad thing to be a geek? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.
Oh, and may the Force be with you! 😉
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** “Skiffy” is a belittling term I would never use. It’s a deliberate corruption of “sci fi”, which was coined by the great Forry Ackerman as an abbreviation of “science fiction”, which went along with the then popular term “hi fi” for “high fidelity” (sound). It’s used to refer to works which the speaker thinks are not worthy of being called “science fiction”…they may have the accoutrement of more serious or “nobler” works, but are considered poor imitations. Interestingly, many people saw Star Wars as that when it was released…it was space opera, not an extrapolation of science, and they didn’t like it being called science fiction
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