The Geek Problem or You Are Not Luke Skywalker

Some years ago, I read an article in a mainstream magazine that basically said, "There's no doubt about, being a geek is cool. Everyone is dressing like geeks, watching superhero movies, using computers, truly geekdom is in." And I remember thinking, "What planet is this guy living on?" Yes, people may be using the Internet on their iPhones, dressing in Buddy Holly glasses and wearing plaid sweater vests on their way to see The Dark Knight, but they're also laughing at Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons or at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog making fun of people at San Diego Comic Con. Certain elements of geek culture have been appropriated by the mainstream, to be sure, but geekiness itself is not "cool"; in fact, if I understand the words correctly, the two are by definition in opposition. (Like the old oxymoron "it's hip to be square".)

There has over the years, of course, been a movement to reappropriate the word "geek" as positive, as something to be celebrated, usually on the model of the homosexuals' reappropriation of the word "queer." This movement seeks geeks to be proud of their culture and their differences from the mainstream, to celebrate it, to shout "we're here, we're geeky, get used to it." Of course, geekdom is not exactly analogous to homosexuality for a huge number of reasons, but one can sympathize with the people who were bullied in school and now want to declare absolutely to the world that there's nothing wrong with themselves.

I have a lot to identify with in the geek culture. I grew up on Monty Python and Douglas Adams, I played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager and I currently work as a professional computer programmer. I pick up new comic books every week at a comic book store, run Linux on my home computer and I enjoy speculative fiction novels, Doctor Who and the musical stylings of The Decemberists. Certainly, if someone accused me of being a geek, I couldn't really argue with them. And yet I'm not sure I self-identify as a geek. I feel like the kind of gay person who likes having sex with their own gender, but doesn't really want to participate in queer culture, in the parades and the drag shows and so on. People like that have been accused of hating their own kind, but there's less of a hatred and more of a simple disinterest to participate, to glorify, to otherwise willingly separate oneself from the rest society. (I'm going to refrain from any more comparisons to queer culture, because I don't know enough about it and because, as I said, it's not analogous in many very important ways.)

Like a lot of geeky people, I spent a good portion of my life being ashamed of my geeky ways. When I hit puberty I threw away all of my SF novels (including literally dozens of books by Piers Anthony and Terry Pratchett) and turned instead to "hip" writers like Kerouac and Burroughs, and later to "literary" writers like Philip Roth. I also threw out all my comics and restricted myself to reading only The Sandman and Cerebus, both of which I could defend as being intellectual and artsy. I stopped writing computer programs and took up rock music. In short, in the course of a year or so, I became another person, one who (I believed) would be more attractive to girls (often a primary motivator in such things) and, moreover, who would be more socially acceptable than the awkward, nearly-friendless child I had been.

This is hardly an uncommon story; reinventing yourself in high school to seem more socially attractive is practically a right of passage. Even geeks who band together in high school do so specifically in a way that gives them a social structure where they can be comfortable. The confluence of dawning self-awareness and pubescent hormones creates a situation where people naturally flock together into cliques based on similar interests to help them reaffirm their own self-worth and deal with the natural insecurities that come with all major life changes. And it's normal for these cliques to vilify those in other cliques as part of their own self-affirmation.

When JF Quackenbush accuses the "SF Ghetto" of having a high school mentality, this is what he's talking about. It's not that flocking together because of similar interests is bad, far from it. But it's when that flock becomes the measure of your self-worth and when those outside of your domain are "mundanes" or worse, as Matt Staggs put it recently, "We are the change-makers, the innovators and the leaders. The rest of society? Supporters and enablers at best, useless eaters at worst." That's unhelpful to both you and to those who might be sympathetic to you. When you start saying that geeks are responsible for all innovation, for all artistic achievement, for, in short, all culture and technology, then you're buying into this high-school mentality that "we are the best, everyone else is lame" which is the same mentality held by the high-school bullies who pick on the weirdos and freaks in the first place. (And Matt, all leaders are geeks? All artists are geeks? All freaks and weirdos are geeks? No on all counts.)

Because the problem is that when you say you should be proud to be a geek, it sounds to a lot of people that you're saying you should be proud of being a socially handicapped virgin who thinks Star Wars, Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings are the Ultimate Creations of Mankind. And that's why I was ashamed of my own geekiness in high school, why the Sci-Fi Channel think so poorly of its own name (and it's implications) that it changes it to "SyFy", why some writers will bend over backwards to not have their work in the Science Fiction section of the bookstore even if their book is about kung fu robots fighting vampires in an apocalyptic future (or something). People in the SF ghetto are justly offended by this stereotype, but making the ghetto more defensive and insular is not the solution, nor is trying to appropriate all freaks, weirdos, artists and leaders as your own. (My friend the painter who made fun of me for watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer might take issue with that classification, for one.)

What I'm coming to realize more and more is that it's not the genre of Speculative Fiction that bothers me, but the social apparatus that's sprung up around it. Mystery readers and writers don't have anything like the stigma associated with Speculative Fiction, but they still have their own section of the bookstore and even their own conventions. And that's because the geek world has so desperately latched on to Speculative Fiction and other geeky things as measures of their self-worth, and that in turn comes from deep-seated high-schoolish insecurities and feelings of persecution. Much as self-help gurus like to tell people "You are not your wallet. You are not your car." I feel like telling geeks, "You are not your comic book collection. You are not your Star Wars action figures. You are not your computer. You are not Frodo Baggins or Mr. Spock or Luke Skywalker." Because someone who walks around in a Star Trek uniform on a day-to-day basis is someone who has deep-seated insecurities about their own identity.

And this is what we mean when we say that we want to get rid of the SF Ghetto. It's not that we don't like Speculative Fiction. It's just that we'd like to see it grow up.



you totally quoted Huey Lewis and the News.

I was goin' back in time...

I was goin' back in time...