The morning after the Isla Vista shootings, I was on Gchat with Sam, my fellow weekend editor. I was supposed to be working, but I was having trouble getting to it. I’d seen people on Twitter looking for friends who lived near the shooting (and who weren’t returning their calls), and the shooter’s disturbing screed was still up on YouTube. I watched as much as I could stomach (not much). Sam and I sat together, a few thousand miles apart, sharing the silence of a blank chat field.
I don’t know what post I was working on at the time. Sailor Moon fanart, perhaps, or an X-Men parody video. All I know is that in that moment, I couldn’t see any point to doing it. Seven people were dead for no reason at all, and I was doing that maddening thing human beings always do after a tragedy — trying to make sense of something that was, by nature, senseless.
That moment came to mind last weekend, as I deleted a rather mean-spirited comment (an occurrence that thankfully happens much less often than not). The thing about comment moderation is that you quickly realize that almost all unpleasant comments follow predictable scripts, and because of that, they become easy to ignore. Ants at a picnic, nothing more. This comment was no different, except that it included essentially the same question I’d been asking myself as I sat with Sam: “Why aren’t you talking about something IMPORTANT, like [insert current event]?”
I’ve seen this breed of comment before, as I think everyone on the internet has. But right then, I felt like me and this commenter had common ground (in the question, at least — I’m not in the habit of using the term “feminazi”). He’d been reading about a big, horrible, real-life event, and was doing that maddening human thing — trying to make sense of it — and somehow, while still caught up in all those feelings of fear and despair and helplessness, stumbled across some discussion about the Fantastic Four or what have you. In that moment, I bet he felt like I felt that Saturday, staring at an empty WordPress field, telling Sam that my work seemed pointless. We may have expressed our feelings differently, that commenter and I, but I think we were coming from the same place.
Because here’s the thing: the world is a mess. Our global environment is a game of Jenga we didn’t realize we were playing, our economies and political systems are a tangled nightmare, and we’ve yet to stop settling conflicts by killing each other. If you sleep in a safe home and have everything you need to care for yourself and your family, you have it better than most. Being able to work in the things I work at and to spend time with the hobbies I love is a privilege. I have no illusions on that front. I’m conscious of that whenever I sit down to review a video game or to search for good-looking artwork. I know that my ability to write stuff down for a living is reflective of the fact that I, through nothing more than luck of the draw, was born into an economically sound area within a socially stable region in which there are things like ample food, good education, and a distinct lack of warfare. It’s not fair, and I’ve done nothing to deserve it any more than anyone else. And I am aware, too, that when I’m lying on my deathbed, I will care far, far more about who’s there with me than who’s been cast in Star Wars XXVI. In the end, survival and well-being are all that matter. Everything else is gravy.
But the gravy is still important. For the entirety of human history, our species has followed the same pattern: as soon as our base needs are met, we start making stuff. We create art. We tell stories. We trade ideas. We ask questions. This has been true for all cultures, all communities. We may eat different things and hold to different philosophies, but that pattern never changes. Fill our bellies and keep us from danger, and we start testing our boundaries.
When we learn about bygone cultures, there is always, always mention of art and stories, usually discussed in tandem with the real-world influences that they’re reflective of. The fictions people create tell us what they believed in, what their values were, what their lives were like. Stories are not born in a vacuum, and even at their most fantastic, they have their roots in us. We tend to give more weight to things kept in museums and history books, but that same principle holds true in our modern world, even in geek culture. Especially in geek culture. The Lord of the Rings would not be as it is without World War I. The X-Men would not be as they are without the Civil Rights Movement. The works of Hayao Miyazaki would not be as they are without the rise of industrial pollution. The deeper we dig into imaginary worlds, the more we understand that all we’re doing is looking at reality through a funhouse mirror.
That understanding matters. Hugely. The world influences our stories, but our stories influence the world, too. This is why governments that want a tighter level of control over their citizens limit freedom of speech, and why books get banned from schools. There are few things more powerful than a well-told story.
Stories don’t have to be fictions, either. Science, in a roundabout way, is a story, too: the story of what we are, how things work, and where we might be headed. Granted, it’s a story that plays by different rules — namely, that it has rules — but it still exists as a mechanism for understanding where we’re at. It’s no surprise that the umbrella of geek culture covers both speculative fiction and STEM fields. Science is the exploration of what is; fiction is the exploration of what could be. If, then.
So when we talk about tropes and stereotypes and narrative styles, when we talk about space and weird tech and the things cooked up in labs, we’re not talking about those individual things, not really. We’re talking about ourselves. We’re examining our perspective of the world, and discussing the things we want to keep and the things we want to change. We don’t always agree (trust me, I’m a comment moderator), and that’s good. These things need to be debated and picked apart, and we should, from time to time, take a step back and ask ourselves if we’re focusing our energies in the right directions. I don’t fault that commenter I mentioned above for asking what he did (even if his phrasing was less than constructive), nor do I feel like a turncoat for admitting that I sometimes ask that same question. There’s little point to examining the world if we don’t check our approach from time to time, too.
Geek culture may only be a small silver of the stories and ideas that are out there, but it’s our sliver, and the more I live within it, the more I believe that it’s a force for good. We’re the ones pushing the envelope, questioning the status quo and considering new futures. Yes, the things we imagine are outlandish, but look at what they’ve inspired in us. We believe in heroism. We believe in fighting the good fight. We believe in using whatever advantages we have to help those without. The longer you stick around, the more you see how those ideas — spandex-clad though they may be — ripple out into the real world. I’ve heard story after story about fans and enthusiasts of all stripes who take the lessons from their favored fictions and put them to practical use. People who volunteer, people who give to charity, people who became scientists and engineers and explorers, all because of a comic or a book that they found at exactly the right time (or, conversely, people who write comics or books inspired by scientists and engineers and explorers). And on a smaller (but equally important) scale, our stories so often give people the armor they need to make it through their individual struggles. Stories get people out of dark places, and science helps us find answers to the questions that make us so afraid. Geek culture is, first and foremost, an expression of joy. If our world really is that messed up, then we need optimism and imagination more than just about anything.
But what about the times when we’re not engaging in deep, brainy thought experiments, or bettering our personal lives? What about the times when we’re just making stupid photoshops or laughing at cat videos? You may disagree with me on this, but I think those things are worthy, too. Because here’s what Sam and I decided on that awful Saturday, the thing that got me back to posting fanart or whatever it was (and yes, the fact that I can remember the shooting and not the post content is a potent reminder of perspective): we need fun. We shouldn’t ignore the ugliness in the world, but you will implode if that’s the only input you allow yourself. If that day bolstered anything in me, it was my desire to have as much fun as I can while I have the opportunity to do so. This doesn’t mean ceasing to care about others, or to ignore the Important Stuff. Doing things just for fun makes me all the more committed to building a world in which everybody has that luxury. Life is short, and fragile, and if you have the chance to laugh or chill out, for god’s sake, take it. Sew a costume, make a gif set, write absurd fanfiction, and be grateful for every minute of it. Life is stressful; fun is the antidote. If you and your responsibilities are taken care of, and if you’ve made some time for your fellow human beings as well, I see no harm in enjoying the world to its fullest.
Is geek culture the most important thing? Of course not. But is it worthwhile? Yes. A hundred times, yes.