The title comes from Christopher Priest’s hilariously overwrought anguish over the Arthur C. Clarke awards. It’s noteworthy only due to the fantastic amount of skill Priest possesses; the sentiments are all ones we’ve heard before. It is not unlike the recent kerfuffle over “fake” Geek Girls: “dilettantes are devaluing my club!”
I’ve been listing to old episodes of This American Life thanks to their iPhone app, and in one episode about simulated worlds, a Civil War re-enactor says:
When I see someone in line and he’s got modern glasses, that takes away from my event. It might not affect his event, but it takes away from mine.
Fantasies are oddly fragile, the slightest reminder of just how flimsy they are is enough to shatter them. The re-enactor is not actually in the past. The hours of geekdom Tara Brown and Patton Oswalt put in isn’t worth anything beyond the enjoyment they gave them at the time. Priest’s tastes no longer reflect the culture he has help build. I’ve heard the term “cultural appropriation” thrown around, referring to people who like nerdy things but don’t have the “cred” others have worked on. But that’s not what this is.
This is bubble-bursting. This is reminder that the entertainment we spent so much time, effort and money on, it’s still just entertainment. And it can be consumed by anyone. You can have DOCTOR WHO fans, now, who have no interest in the series before Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor. And why shouldn’t they? Smith is the guy who’s on TV now.
There’s something strange about geek-culture. I’ve heard it referred to as an “obsession,” but it’s not just that. Strangely enough, geekdom one of the few obsessions where participation does not equal involvement. When someone refers to themselves as obsessed with swing dancing, say, or food, it is is assumed that they dance, or cook. Even hardcore sports fans play the games they obsess over, even if it is just shooting hoops in the driveway. This participation is the mark of their obsession; they create because they are obsessed. Anyone can enjoy dancing, food or basketball. The obsessed push it beyond mere consumption.
But geek culture is just about consumption. Most comic fans don’t make comics. Most film fans don’t make films. I know a lot of sci-fi fans who are also sci-fi writers, but I know many more who aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does make it hard to differentiate between those who are obsessed and those who just like something.
When I was growing up, there was a idea that the more you knew about a sci-fi show, or film series, or comic book character, that knowledge gave you a certain amount of power. You could lord it over other kids. And if you were ever challenged, you could count on your accumulated nerd-lore to prove you the victor.
Part of this comes from the childhood need to compete, to establish a pecking order in a social group. And some of this comes from the need to believe that everything we gave to our entertainment meant something. That it wasn’t just consuming. That being a sci-fi fan meant being part of a group of embattled warriors, who were teased endlessly for what we liked. Surely, that must mean something. Have we lived and fought in vain?
There are people who enjoy geek culture who don’t believe in setting up pecking orders, who consume what they like because they like it, not because they have to complete the set. There is no difference in their enjoyment, in their desire to lose themselves in a expertly-crafted fantasy world. But these are people who enjoy things as adults, and that can be extremely jarring to those of us who still enjoy things as we did when we were kids.
We set up goal posts, of what it means to be a geek. What level of commitment it takes. But in the end, we’re really just griping about someone who had the nerve to enjoy themselves without changing their glasses.