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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Geek is Mainstream

I've been thinking a lot about geeks and geekiness lately. The term "geek" is sometimes used as a pejorative, sometimes as a badge of pride. Different people have different definitions. Is a geek better than a nerd? And how are the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres affected by the "geek" label, a label that seems to gravitate to them and the people who enjoy them?

The Guardian's Book Blog was kind enough to link to our Sci-Fi and Religion series a few months back. Sam Jordison is the writer who linked us, and it was one of his posts that got me thinking about geekiness.

Sam's post is titled My night in the new world of SF, but it was one of the comments that really made me think. I found this comment by TerryStern to be particularly interesting:

I took the link back to your original post about SF and it would seem that you have been on an interesting journey. I think the real question is raised in both this post and the original. Why does SF present itself in such a geeky way?

The Dr Who books, the Star wars/trek books and so forth in mainstream bookstores is one thing, but why are they letting one of their main awards be tarred with the Star Wars brush as you so outlined? It will only cause ridicule, parody and a reinforcement of stereotypes in the literary community.

If the SF publishers want 'others' to see the genius of SF authors like Delaney, Dick and M John Harrison, they need to start taking themselves a bit more seriously and distancing themselves from the trekkie/geeky personas which have so successfully become embedded in the common psyche.
This sort of talk gets my hackles up. For all my high ideas about Sci-Fi and Fantasy, I realize that for some people there's a stigma attached. The funny thing is that it's visited most visibly on the most mainstream of Sci-Fi, Star Wars and Star Trek. However, the idea that associating with people who like to dress up in costume somehow degrades Sci-Fi, and that the publishers need to "take themselves a bit more seriously" is nonsense. Is Sci-Fi, and more importantly good Sci-Fi, having trouble in the current state of popular culture? And how is this "geekiness" thing affecting the genre?

The answer to these questions is pretty simple in my mind: Geek is mainstream, and therefore benefiting Sci-Fi. Look at the percentage of movies and television shows arriving each season that have Sci-Fi themes (or even comic-book themes, which fits into this conversation as well). How many of them are wildly successful? How many of them are great, or have some seriously great moments to them? I could name off a bunch of my favorite examples, but I think you get my point.

The big counterexample to this is the continuing categorization of Sci-Fi and Fantasy as separate from "serious" literature. If it's "serious," like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, then it's no longer considered Sci-Fi. This idea is not new, and while searching around on this subject, I chanced upon Ursula K. Leguin's riff on this supposed separation between genre fiction and "serious" fiction. It's a pretty annoying distinction for those of us who like "genre" fiction such as Sci-Fi and Fantasy. However, I think we are seeing this difference fade away over time as people continue to talk about it. The presence of the internet is also changing this view as well, allowing more "fringe" types of Sci-Fi and Fantasy to get readership.

So, is this increasing popularity of "geeky" material a good thing? Unequivocally, yes. Sure, this popularity also brings more crap, which can make identifying worthwhile media harder. Also, for some of us, this growth takes away that special feeling of "I'm different, I'm counterculture." However, more is better in this case, especially when there are reviewers and friends to help us find the good stuff. And that "counterculture" attitude is a bad habit, far too similar to the snobbishness of the quoted post above and the "serious" literature folks. It's best to just grow out of this attitude.

In conclusion, geek is indeed mainstream. It's time for the "serious" to get used to the fact, and it's time for those who can't let go of their counterculture specialness to move on to something new. And for the rest of us, it's a great time to enjoy the ride on the continually expanding wave of media that caters to our tastes.

As a side note, people who disparage Sci-Fi because of trekkies and costume-bedecked Sci-Fi fans really need to get over themselves. Similarly, those of us who enjoy Sci-Fi have no reason to be embarrassed. This behavior is no different than that displayed by Rocky Horror Picture Show players, painted and foam-finger-pointing sports fans, historical reenactment societies, adult Halloweeners, and the pope. If wearing a silly costume makes you a social outcast, then I'd argue that a whole lot of socially-conscious people need to be worried.


Joel said...

Interesting: Author and columnist Rick Klaw says something similar in his interview over at SF Crow's Nest.

Mister Troll said...

Nice post.

I agree -- geek has become (more) mainstream.

I'm not sure science, on the other hand, is as well-regarded. I don't perhaps have the historical experience to temper this cynicism.