Gillian Philip was born in Glasgow, lived for twelve years in Barbados, and now lives in the north of Scotland with her husband, twin children, three dogs, two sociopathic cats, a slayer hamster, three chickens, and a lot of nervous fish. Her latest novel is Bloodstone. Visit Gillian at her website GillianPhilip.com, on Twitter as @Gillian_Philip, and on Facebook.
by Gillian Philip
I remember the first time I saw Star Wars. Well, I sort of do. In my memory, it was a midnight showing at the Odeon, Aberdeen, and I was AWOL against my parents’ orders. In my memory, we did not ‘go to the movies’ that night; we stalked there in a single-minded horde, heads down against the Scottish rain, stubborn and indefatigable as a mob of zombies out of Shaun of the Dead.
It probably wasn’t a bit like that. It was probably the 7pm showing and we probably nipped over from the chip shop, but that’s my myth and I’m hanging on to it.
None of us expected Star Wars to be a massive, popular, enduring hit. It was ours. Science fiction and fantasy were not cool in my day. Not to the world beyond the school library where the geeks hung out (and in retrospect, that was so Buffy of us, except that I can hardly remember any of us reading the books. Mostly, I think, we just irritated the hell out of the librarian).
I remember being vaguely embarrassed by my X-Men habit, while fancying the stuffing out of Cyclops (who didn’t look a bit like James Marsden). I remember school trips to Edinburgh; while the cool girls went straight to Miss Selfridge and Chelsea Girl, we snuck off to West Crosscauseway and the dark shadows of the legendary Science Fiction Bookshop. (What do you mean, what was the educational point of those trips? I can’t for the life of me remember.) Back in fantasy-less Aberdeen, we’d have killed for a branch of Forbidden Planet. My most treasured Valentine’s gift was a Cadbury’s Creme Egg; my romantic beau had carved it up with a hot knife to make it look like a half-open xenomorph egg. (I painted it with clear nail varnish to preserve it forever, and gods help me, I still have the thing somewhere. Unlike my stuffed Chewbacca toy, which my mother gave away while I was at university, may the Force have mercy on her soul.)
And when I put myself up for my second English Speaking Board certificate, I chose as my topic The History of Doctor Who, and the disappointment in my teacher’s eyes is burned into my soul. I didn’t get half as good a mark as I did for The Vikings the previous year.
Thing is, if I was doing it now, I’d get a Distinction (I would, I tell you), and probably the undying adoration of the Head of the English Department. Because in 2013, geek isn’t just popular, it isn’t just mainstream, it’s respectable.
Young Jedi, you’re not going to believe this, but there was a time when The Lord of the Rings was a cultish guilty pleasure. Nowadays, show me a middle aged matron who doesn’t fancy Aragorn. On the once-stuffy Auntie BBC, David Tennant ruled the Christmas television schedules of 2009, right down to starring in his own Tardis-themed ident. Broadsheet critics give acres of space and thought and serious discussion to Game of Thrones, both as book and television series, and Daenerys’s dragons are a more-than-acceptable topic at middle class London dinner parties. And blow me down, there’s a Forbidden Planet in Aberdeen now, right on Schoolhill. This middle-aged matron feels perfectly comfortable popping in for a graphic novel or a Walking Dead figurine; I’m by no means the only M.A.M. there.
How did it happen? We grew up, that’s all I reckon. We got middle-aged, and instead of putting aside childish things (I’m quoting, don’t hit me), we brought them with us.
Sheldon Cooper would be aghast. The mainstream can be an uncomfortably bright and fast place to be. There’s a special pleasure in the side currents: in knowing and loving something that other people just don’t get. To be honest, I was a surface-skimming fantasy geek, as were most of my girl friends. I admit it, we did get a little irritated that the boys would rather play Dungeons & Dragons till 2am than hang out at the beach with us (and we didn’t take D&D seriously enough to earn a permanent place in the den). I know our true believer boyfriends in those days would have hated to be in the mainstream. That was the kind of cool that operated in our circle: cool like that of the almost-mythical Spiney (I think that was his name), who kept his comics in a fireproof safe and was rumoured in awed whispers to own a Batman Issue 1. Spiney would have shaken the dust of Christopher Nolan from his boots, I think.
But really, what’s not to like? The rise and constant rise of science fiction and fantasy in the popular imagination has given us not just Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings movies, it’s given us Tobey Maguire doing Spider-Man and Hugh Jackman doing Wolverine (phwoar) and Joss Whedon writing the Avengers and Scarlett Johansson in black leather and Simon Pegg being Scotty and and and… all right, it’s given us Halle Berry as Catwoman, but heck, separate Halle and Cat and they’re still both pretty perfect and nobody died. Besides, there will always be nice shadowy side-pools that the mainstream current can’t reach.
Also, you know, Big Bang Theory.
“I’m all wrong, Mum,” says my son the other day, lounging against the doorframe in his skinny black jeans and his Rolling Stones t-shirt as he examines the James Marsters signed photo I’ve just bought him. “I can’t be a geek and a rocker. Can I?”
“Ah, my son, it’s not like it was in my day,” I intone, as on second thoughts I repossess Spike. “You can be both.”