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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Essay

In Defense of Geekery: Why Society Needs SF/F


Looking at our problems head-on is uncomfortable. It either makes us angry, or it makes us retreat. Neither of those options are enjoyable. This is where SF/F has an advantage over other genres. Very few folks would opt to spend their Friday night watching a movie about, say, apartheid. But a movie with aliens and spaceships and giant arm cannons? Yeah, we’re all for that. Which is, of course, why we all went to see District 9, a movie about aliens and spaceships and giant arm cannons – and, y’know, apartheid.

The other kicker is that our stories are ones that could be, not ones that are. This is a vital distinction. If I tell you a disturbing story, and I say, “this is how it is right now,” you may be motivated to do something about it. More likely, however, you will end up like me and my friends, picking at fries and feeling hopeless. You’ll feel pessimistic and disillusioned. You’ll feel like our species totally sucks.

But if I show you a fantastical place – even a scary one – that lights up all the little imaginative parts of your brain, and I tell you, “this is how it could be,” that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. If the underlying message is positive, then just like Dr. King said, you’ll feel empowered to work towards that future. Take, for example, Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. Here’s a quote about her from a 1996 issue of Stanford Today (fair warning, that link’s a PDF):

As fantastical as it sounds, her pioneering journey about the Space Shuttle Endeavour was fueled by a childhood passion for “Star Trek,” its made-for-TV adventures stimulating a hunger for real ones in her mind. Who cared that, in reality, every U.S. astronaut was white and male at the time? She looked no further than the USS Enterprise. After all, right there on the screen, week in and week out, who could miss Lt. Uhura, the starship’s stylish, self-assured communications officer – and a black woman, no less. For little Mae, a child of the ’60s, the make-believe image was more potent than any dispiriting fact of real life.

‘Nuff said.

Now, if the story shows us a grim future – such as Blade Runner or Battlestar Galactica – the same principle applies. Since the future depicted has not happened yet, we can work to avoid it. We can take it as a warning. We can use it to prepare for the road ahead of us.

I believe that the caveat of “the future” makes all science fiction, even at its most bleak, inherently hopeful. Even if it ends badly, I can still do something about it.

But what about fantasy? Fantasy can’t exist, no matter how we may long for a dragon heartstring wand or a dire wolf pup. What value can there be in exploring an impossible world?

Well, what if we frame the question differently? What if we ask, “What value can there be in exploring character studies in heroism, friendship, creativity, perseverance, and bravery?”

…yeah, that’s not even a question.

Of course, there’s the possibility that you won’t take anything like that away from a story. Some of you may have walked out of District 9 talking about arm cannons instead of apartheid. And you know what? That’s okay.

Consider this quote from Jane McGonigal‘s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (which you should totally read).

When we’re depressed…we suffer from two things: a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity. If we were to reverse these two traits, we’d get something like this: an optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity. There’s no clinical psychological term that describes this positive condition. But it’s a perfect description of the emotional state of gameplay…In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.

I think that applies to any fandom, not just gaming. Geeks are hardly passive recipients of entertainment. When we watch TV or read books, we’re not turning off our brains. We’re posting on our Tumblrs and arguing in forums and making cakes and fanart and level mods. A good story can leave us with a high that lasts for days.

McGonigal continues:

When we’re in a concentrated state of optimistic engagement, it suddenly becomes biologically more possible for us to think positive thoughts, to make social connections, and to build personal strengths. We are actively conditioning our minds and bodies to be happier.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds to me like the most powerful tool for social change that we could possibly have.

The danger, of course, is getting so caught up in those alternate realities that we lose touch with the real world. This is what society thinks of when it thinks of geeks – sexless misfits devoid of social graces and personal hygiene. And yeah, those geeks exist. For some people, life is just so unpleasant that they wear their fictional worlds like a suit of armor. However, what we are dealing with here is a case of squares and rectangles. Some shut-ins are geeks. Not all geeks are shut-ins.

Or, to put it another way, just because you are a geek does not mean that your interests are without societal value.

Progress is impossible without imagination. When we say that we are geeks, what we’re really saying is that we like to get rampantly enthusiastic and think about new ideas. In my eyes, that makes us some truly extraordinary human beings. Far from being loners, we have woven ourselves into a weird, wonderful, mighty community that serves no other purpose than to get excited together. In a big, mean, scary world, that might just be revolutionary.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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  • Denise Farley

    This is absolutely lovely and absolutely true. Wonderful article.

  • http://twitter.com/kyrax2 Kyrax2

    What a fantastic article.  You’ve put into words so many things that I’ve been thinking about lately.  I need to stop being apologetic about the things I love!  Thanks so much for this positive, optimistic take on being a geek and geekdom.

  • http://twitter.com/WanderinDreamr dreamer

    Why couldn’t this have been up a few days earlier, I could’ve cited this in a paper I was just writing! XD
    Anyway, I agree that it’s hard to understate just how good a well-written story makes you feel and how long it sticks with you. I watch a lot of anime and the best anime are the ones where each episode gives me enough to think/speculate about for an entire week and then a new episode airs and it starts all over again. And I know this is also the reason why I hate reading about indecisive characters, I want to read about people who, even if they aren’t sure what they’re doing, are just going to go ahead and do something anyway because it sorta-kinda inspires me to just go ahead and do stuff myself.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mercurial.ink Beth Romero

    I just finished Wil Wheaton’s chapter on his love of Star Trek in ‘Just a Geek’, and it’s funnily synchronous to come across something that delves into some of the themes he touched on there.. I love the world of sci-fi, and I’m so happy to read an article that so eloquently explains why that love is acceptable and edifying.  I’ll definitely share this with friends who feel the same way.. and some who don’t :)

  • Life Lessons

    Oh just AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/crikit310 Beth Smith

    This article really touched me.  I often get so depressed when I catch a glimpse of the news or hear someone talking about how screwed up everything is.  I hope the next time I hear about someone talking about the sorry state of the world/country/etc that I remember this article, and think that someone out there is dreaming up a story that talks about how the future doesn’t have to be a dark, hopeless place.

  • Anonymous

    Great stuff!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7G4SWUX2MCWWXLMYNN347JMIZY Frodo Baggins

    I had a journalism teacher in High School who said she wouldn’t read Lord of the Rings because it didn’t really happen. I just… can’t even comprehend having such a bizarre worldview.

  • Anonymous

    I recently revisited an old friend that has helped me get back my creativity, stand strong as a human being and woman, realize that love and friendship are worth more than petty arguments over things that really don’t even matter in the long run, become a more emotionally stable person and understand that I am an amazing piece of this universe and am worth more than I ever dreamed. I wanted to take a moment here to thank him because he helped me realize I am really cool, geekiness and all. So, thank you Doctor, you’ve been a phyciatrist and a friend even though you never knew me. Thanks to you, I have a passion for life and learning again, oh and a police box for a bedroom. ;)
    I’d also like to thank you, Mary Sue, for helping me realize my geeky glory and helping me have the courage to share it with the world.
    Live long and prosper my friends

  • Anonymous

    I’d also like to add (because you have rocked so hard in this department Kyrax2), this means that our criticism and cries for the objects of our geekery to be better should be taken seriously.  Marginalizing people in SF/F has real world implications.  Washington, DC has Cathy Lanier, a female police chief who is wildly popular (a rarity in big cities).  Who knows whether she had an Uhura (or Barbara Gordon or Renee Montoya) to show her that life was possible.    

  • http://profiles.google.com/lowsee Heidi Mason

    I will take this a step further and apply it to my favorite genre, mysteries. This does cross over to comics, though in particular, Batman comics, since he’s a detective.

    Even though mysteries deal with ugly things such as murder and other crimes, often exposing the very darkest corners of humanity, it tempers it with the triumph of good over evil. Often, this is accomplished with a great sense of adventure and fun, such as the feeling of pursuit and barging in to right a wrong with guns blazing. Mysteries impart a sense of justice and right to the world, and the triumph of the human spirit, no matter how dire the circumstances.

    Like you say, what’s wrong with wanting to make the world feel good? :)

  • http://twitter.com/celestialonion Elizabeth

    This was amazing and completely reflects some of the things that I’ve been feeling lately. It has also definitely confirmed my decision of writing my college essay about the Doctor. 

    Pure beauty.

  • Anonymous

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  • http://twitter.com/calieber Charles

    The jacket copy for my edition of Jingo heavy-handedly talks about how it’s an allegory. This was one of the editions where the US jacket copy was particularly dragon-on-the-cover-of-my-book, but still.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

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  • http://twitter.com/rufusevison rufus evison

    To kill a mocking bird didn’t really happen either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Greg-Maloney/723559465 Greg Maloney

    I have a question. Why can’t you do both? Fight the injustice through your SF passion. That how Roddenberry did it he sought to change the world through a good story and compelling characters.  

  • Anonymous

    tinyurl.com/2df4ccp

  • mary elizabeth newsom

    But… They both happened.  A lot. :D

  • mary elizabeth newsom

    But… They both happened.  A lot. :D

  • http://twitter.com/katkaminion Julius Caesar

    Thank you for writing this. It was lovely. You are a good writer and the message, it just… what, no, I’m not crying, something got in my eye, stop looking at me.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

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  • http://ladymercury-10.livejournal.com/ Maiasaura

    This is a wonderful post.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

    Just sent this to my creative writing professor, who only accepts genre fiction as a last resort. What’s wrong with a little swordplay, huh?

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Leslie-Wildesen/1284592386 Leslie Wildesen

    I write Sci-Fi novels for middle-grade girl geeks under the name L.E. Allstrom — it is as important for us geeks to see ourselves in adventures today as it was when I was younger, probably more important given all the science and tech 8-12 year olds experience now. Thank you for making my pitch for me! This is very valuable for us all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Leslie-Wildesen/1284592386 Leslie Wildesen

    I write Sci-Fi novels for middle-grade girl geeks under the name L.E. Allstrom — it is as important for us geeks to see ourselves in adventures today as it was when I was younger, probably more important given all the science and tech 8-12 year olds experience now. Thank you for making my pitch for me! This is very valuable for us all.

  • Anonymous

    I love this so much. Thank you for writing it.