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MIND MELD: Science Fiction as a ‘Geek’ Genre

If you look around, you’ll see that science fiction seems to be very popular, especially in movies (The Matrix, Star Wars) and TV (Heroes, LOST), but you may have noticed that science fiction still doesn’t seem to get the respect from the teeming masses that it’s popularity would seem to indicate it deserves. This time we asked science fiction bloggers and authors the following question:

Despite science fiction’s popularity, and success, on film and TV, why does it still have the stigma of being a ‘geek’ genre?
Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon is the author of Geekend hosted at Tech Republic. Jay is quite knowledgeable when it comes to science fiction and geek trivia.

I’m going to answer this in a roundabout way. As a sci-fi consumer, I’m betting you have one of those friends who doesn’t “do” sci-fi despite being an avid reader, movie buff, of TV watcher. Every time you recommend a sci-fi show or flick to this person, they respond with a typical line: “I just can’t get into it.” In my experience, what this phrase really means is “I can’t identify with the characters.” The average-joe schlub in the sitcom, everyone can see themselves as. He doctors and lawyers and police detectives that catch bad guys—everyone wants to see themselves as. The polymath engineer-cum-diplomat starship captain? Not so much. This is the central divide between geek genre and mainstream genre.

By virtue of its setting, science fiction and fantasy have a certain distance from conventional experience. For some folks, that’s the draw. For others, it’s a put-off. Geeks, to lean on a stereotype, have no trouble envisioning themselves in these foreign settings. (Heck, most of us are willing to literally dress up in costume to emulate them.) Sadly, this puts us in the minority. Geek shows only become mainstream when they design themselves to be accessible to the regular viewer, not the geek viewer.

For example:

“Chuck”—about an average-joe schlub who gets thrust into a wacky action-movie goofy CIA underworld, played mostly for laughs. The protagonist is designed to appeal to the average guy, even if he does trend a little geeky. The cast makes this show rise above its McG origins.

“Heroes”—despite a subpar second season (I wasn’t wild about the first, either), is about ordinary people who wake up one day with superpowers and extraordinary destinies. Dash in some maudlin soap opera tropes, and you’ve got a network darling.

“Lost”—a bunch of average folks thrust into a bizarre, byzantine, mysterious situation that is only barely revealing itself each episode. Also, the island castaway setting let them sneak the show past you, getting a larger audience hooked before they realized this was a geek show. Admit it, you thought this was a dramatic version of “Survivor” or at least Tom Hanks’s “Castaway—The Series” before you ever heard of the Dharma Project. But by then, it was too late.

The new “Battlestar Galactica” fails this test. Despite having what I would argue are some of the most human and humanly complex characters on television, BSG presents a setting that is just too outside the norm for regular folks to buy in. By any aesthetic measure, BSG is the better show than any of the three listed above, but that trio will kick BSG’s ratings butt from here to eternity, largely on the strength of accessibility. (Being on major networks helps, but BSG is owned by NBC, and it could have had mainstream positioning a long time ago if there was any hope of it justifying a network timeslot.)

Wildly successful sci-fi movies, by contrast, don’t have to play by these rules, for two reasons. One: They can get by on spectacle, with folks coming in just for the eye candy and explosions. Two: They are a one-off commitment, so they have a certain measure of accessibility built in, and where that fails, the movie-goer is a bit more forgiving. And anyone who does make a long-term connection with the characters is almost instantly branded a geek—hello, Star Wars fans who wear costumes in line for the next movie.

Take a look at the all-time (inflation adjusted) box office gross Top 30 list, and pick out the sci-fi members:

#2 Star Wars – Spectacle, the original Memorial Day tentpole move

#4 E.T. – Average kid meets cute alien, everyone identifies with Elliott

#12 Empire Strikes Back – Spectacle, the sequel

#14 Return of the Jedi – Spectacle part three

#16 Raiders of the Lost Ark – Spectacle with classic movie feel, plus everyone hates Nazis who steal religious artifacts

#17 Jurassic Park – Average kids get chased by dinosaurs while scientists save them. We rooted for the dinos.

#19 The Phantom Menace – Raping the corpse of spectacle for a new generation

#30 Ghostbusters – Screwball comedy with sci-fi elements, likeable schlub Bill Murray as main lead

As geeks become more and more identified as “the average guy,” this stigma will fade a bit, but never completely. While “the computer guy” is now seen as an average fellow by most people, simply incorporating computers no longer qualifies a work as science fiction. As sci-fi continues to push the edge of the plausible, those who enjoy these outlandish settings and ideas will always be viewed as outlandish and unusual themselves. It’s the price of admission. One, incidentally, I’m more than willing to pay.

Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson is the author of more than ninety novels, 43 of which have appeared on national or international bestseller lists. He has over 20 million books in print in thirty languages. His epic science fiction series, The Saga of Seven Suns, is his most ambitious work, comprised of Hidden Empire, A Forest Of Stars, Horizon Storms, Scattered Suns, Of Fire And Night, Metal Swarm and the forthcoming grand finale, The Ashes Of Worlds.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with the very basis of the question. I think science fiction is considered the “cool” genre, not just for geeks — especially in the under-30 demographic. Virtually all of the most popular videogames and massively multiplayer online role-playing games are SF/Fantasy/horror. The biggest movies year after year after year are genre films. My digital satellite recorder is filled to the brim with all the new TV shows that fall into the category. The biggest stars in Hollywood have no qualms whatsoever starring in unabashed SF. Just the other night, while flipping past an episode of Boston Legal, I saw a scene with James Spader, William Shatner, and Scott Bakula — their association with science fiction certainly hasn’t hurt their careers!

I don’t know who you’re asking on the street, but when I say that I’ve written Dune novels, or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or comics, I get a genuinely enthusiastic and interested response even from the stodgiest of mundanes. Even “snooty” mainstream authors such as Margaret Atwood or Doris Lessing have no qualm with admitting they write SF. That’s soooo, um, Kurt Vonnegut.

I think we’ve won the battle. We’re already mainstream.

Angela @ SciFiChick
Angela (a.k.a. SciFi Chick) is a SciFi fan, portrait artist, and avid reader of all genres. She has a fulltime desk job for a Fortune 500 company. And occasionally does drawings of buildings and portraits on commission. She reads every chance she gets.

I think one factor is that unless a science fiction idea is ‘dumbed-down’ a bit, a lot of it may be over-the-heads of some viewers/readers. And people who are of above average intelligence have always been labeled ‘geeks’ or some other derogatory term, because of jealousy or just because they’re different. I’m not saying that I’m super smart, but when I can explain the quantum string theory from Quantum Leap or explain what carbon-based life forms are, you can bet that my sister calls me a ‘geek’? That’s not because she’s jealous or feeling stupid, it’s because she thinks I’m strange.

Also, most science fiction fans aren’t dressing up in Starfleet uniforms everyday and so wrapped up in their favorite show that they can’t function in normal society. But there are a several that are that way. And unfortunately, that’s what a lot of stereotypes stem from. The public sees a few that stand out from the crowd, and they figure all fans must be that way.

When I meet people, I certainly don’t tell them I have a website called Why? Because I don’t want people to automatically think (or know) I’m a geek right away. My hobby doesn’t define me. It’s just something I do for fun.

Keith DeCandido
Keith has published over thirty novels, most of them in the realm of media tie-ins. The majority of his work has appeared in the worlds of Star Trek: Keith has written novels, novellas, comic books, short stories, and eBooks, and also edited several anthologies that cover all five TV shows as well as several prose-only series — one of which, the Corps of Engineers eBook series, he co-developed. Several of his Trek novels have hit the USA Today best-seller list, and received critical acclaim from all over the map, both online and in print, and Keith also continues to edit the monthly Star Trek eBook line.

I reject the premise — to wit, that being a geek genre is a stigma. Geeks are the ones who make money, geeks are the ones who fix the computers, and geeks are the ones who buy the expensive toys to watch TV and movies on.

There’s been a sea change in the culture — one which directly relates to the pervasiveness of computers — regarding nerds, geeks, and freaks. They’ve gone from a demographic to be mocked to be a demographic to be catered to.

Carl V. @ Stainless Steel Droppings
Carl V. makes his home on the net at Stainless Steel Droppings. He loves all things geek: science fiction/fantasy books and films, comics, computer games. He even likes chick flicks. We won’t hold that against him. Much.

As I pondered this question, many potentially valid ‘reasons’ for the continuation of the ‘geek’ moniker being synonymous with science fiction emerged. For the sake of brevity I will touch on the two that initially presented themselves to me.

First and foremost I believe that some of the responsibility for the maintenance of science fiction’s ‘geek’ persona can be laid directly at the feet of the medium responsible for its success: specifically film and television. Speaking solely from my own life experience, the unforeseen success of Star Wars, which in turn re-energized the Star Trek franchise, ushered in the type of media exposure that turned science fiction from B movie drive-in fare to the kind of financial juggernaut that produces series like Battlestar Galactica today. It is that same media exposure which helps perpetuate the “science fiction equals geekdom” myth. The technology that wows the general public with eye-catching special effects and engaging stories also provides the most lasting images of what society deems the typical science fiction fan to be. Despite the fact that relatively few members of the television and film watching public have attended a science fiction convention of any kind it is not uncommon to hear someone describe the stereotype of the ‘typical’ convention-going geek. And while Klingon-speaking fully outfitted fans are in the minority even at a Star Trek convention, the common public believes that those fans are representative of all those who proclaim a love of science fiction. And why wouldn’t they? That is what they see. Movies like Galaxy Quest, or more recently Live Free Die Hard (in the roles portrayed by Justin Long and Kevin Smith), to just name two examples, provide comical and heavily stereotyped images of what it means to be a science fiction fan.

We are a visual people living in a visual and image conscious society. The reason the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ has stood the test of time is because of the kernel of truth contained therein-we remember what we see. I would further argue that the most memorable of those images are the ones that are exceptions to our own perceptual norm. For someone who is not an avid fan of science fiction, the image of the “mother’s-basement-dwelling, never-touched-an-actual-girl, ‘I brake for Tribbles’, t-shirt-wearing, overweight, middle-aged adolescent” is a much more easily remembered and identifiable stereotype than the reality that the average science fiction fan is the boy, or girl, next door. Who doesn’t remember the lady who dressed up in her Next Generation uniform to attend jury duty, for example?

Furthermore science fiction fans in the film industry do their part to keep science fiction’s geek cred alive and well. Documentaries like Trekkies or even the more recent tribute to Firefly, Done the Impossible, cannot resist the chance to poke good-natured fun at the community of science fiction fandom by parading images of the obsessed fan before our eyes. Science fiction is certainly not alone in its self-parodying guilt. Ringers: Lord of the Fans is a perfect example in the fantasy genre of a documentary that purported to be a look at the effect of Tolkien’s work on Western society that made sure to include footage of fans at comic conventions doing little more than personifying the ‘geek’ image in front of a live camera. While these are certainly entertaining glimpses into the lives of the more extreme fans of the genre, one has to admit that if the science fiction community cannot use this visual medium to dispel the geek myth, what hope do we have that Hollywood or the media in general will ever portray science fiction as a genre to be taken seriously?

And that begs the question, “Do science fiction fans want the aura of geekdom to go away?” I feel the need to clarify that my intention with this response was to in no way denigrate those fans who immerse themselves so fully into their love of science fiction that they are living examples of the geek stereotype. I am of a kindred spirit to those folks. While I may not own a suit of Storm Trooper armor, I feel at one with those who do. Are we not all a little like those music fans who balk whenever their favorite band becomes ‘popular’, wondering why they have ‘sold out’? While we all want to see our favorite science fiction authors and directors and screenwriters, etc. become wealthy enough to devote all their time to giving us more of the science fiction stories that we love, do we not also in some ways cherish the niche market that we inhabit? Do any of us really want to see science fiction become so popular that the genre perpetuates Danielle-Steel-like authors and book sales or the endless cookie-cutter television shows and films that other genres inspire? I contend that in some ways science fiction fans are a bit pretentious about our geek status and it is that contradictory desire to have science fiction be wildly popular while keeping it all to ourselves that will forever cement the geek label to the genre.

James @ Big Dumb Object
James, from Big Dumb Object, is a frequent commenter and has been blogging fom the other side of the pond for almost as long as SF Signal has been around. In Internet years, that’s a long time.

Short answer: I blame Star Trek TNG.

Long answer:

I think a lot of it is ignorance. I’ve said to people that they should read certain SF books and the answer has been “I don’t like Science Fiction”, without any real evidence to back it up. They think it’s all spaceships and aliens, and yet use a GPS system and mobile phones everyday. I’m convinced that I can find a SF book for everyone.

Maybe it’s the complexity that puts people off? SF books make you think, whether it’s accepting a new world, a new idea or a new construct. Personally I love the complexity, I loved the fact that River Of Gods had 10 plots and I didn’t know what was going on at the start, I love being thrown into a new world that doesn’t make sense. But a lot of people want safe, well known situations.

There’s also media enforced myths of Science Fiction (often with no good reason or evidence, they’re just self perpetuating). If you asked a “civillian” what the typical SF fan is like they would probably say teenage, male and point to a picture of Cory Doctorow. Now, we all know that Cory is cool and that SF fans come in all flavours, but your average non-SF fan wouldn’t. It’s probably due to the fact that our western US/UK society views people as cool if they are good looking and play sport, and anyone with intelligence is ignored. Until they make bombs or clone sheep and can be criticised. Readers turn to SF because it offers intelligence and escapism and something different, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t want something different, and don’t want to be stimulated, and are (un)happy crawling through life in a capitalistic stupour. All this of course is from my western perspective, do Otaku have the same stigma?

Maybe younger generations won’t view SF as geeky. The success of the new Doctor Who in the UK has made it an essential show for kids of all ages. Kids like the fact that there are monsters and spaceships and time-machines. Well, the boys do anyway, which is perhaps part of the problem. Something that is predominantly male dominated can be classified as geeky, but do you ever get called a geek if you’re obsessed by knitting or sewing (or kittens)? I digress, hopefully, in the future there will be a mindset shift and Science Fiction will no longer be seen as geeky.

Either way, I’ll still love it the same.

John Scalzi
John Scalzi once ate an entire llama.

The only thing that came to mind was “For the same reason that rap, largely consumed by white teenage boys, is largely considered an African-American art form,” but I’m not even sure that makes sense.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

6 Comments on MIND MELD: Science Fiction as a ‘Geek’ Genre

  1. John Scalzi – truly mind melTing answer.

  2. I think the more time spent worrying about SF’s standing in the literary hierarchy is less we have reading the truly bountiful crop of great science fiction that’s being produced right now.

  3. Science fiction films seem to only be cool as the actors that are in them. If Will Smith is in it, then it’s cool.

    As far as TV shows go, as long as you have hot stars like Tom Welling playing Clark Kent in Smallville and Hayden Pantierre playing Claire in Heroes and the show is made well then people will pay attention and when enough people pay attention it becomes acceptable and cool to watch it.

    It’s like high school, it’s not cool until the popular kids like it.

  4. Our society looks down on bookworms of all types. If SF is popular at the theater and on our television sets its because it appeals to the young. At a certain age kids love science and they only grow out of that love when it becomes real school work. Science fiction is like fun science without the work.

    Hard core geeks may love SF, but I’m not sure if all SF fans are geeks. SF is very popular in pop culture. Even pretty cheerleaders and jocks love SF now – which wasn’t true when I was growing up.

    Reading and writing doesn’t get much respect. Look at the recent writer’s strike. I’m remind of a Hollywood joke: That blonde was so dumb that she slept with the writer to get the part.

    Jim Harris

  5. I think it’s all to do with how it’s packaged. I’m thinking specifically of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” which is clearly post-apocalyptic speculative fiction, but within the framework of Oprah’s book club, was perceived more as “literature” than SF (and as a result of Oprah’s nod was a hugely successful book). I am making a sweeping generalisation here, but I’m pretty sure if you asked most of Oprah’s book club demographic if they read science fiction they would tell you no, when really they do, and they did.

    Likewise, on television, whilst it is clearly SF, I have never heard the Sarah Connor Chronicles referred to as SF. Is that deliberate? I don’t know, but besides Idol, it’s pulling in some of the highest ratings for the FOX network.

    You’ve also got to think about it in terms of investment of time. A movie or an episode of a TV show is only an hour or so out of your day – and with high production values and whizz-bang effects, that can be an enjoyable hour of escapism, whatever the genre of the show you are watching. However, reading a book takes a level of commitment over and above just pushing the power button on your remote.

    I think those of us that enjoy speculative fiction are generally regarded as “speculative” people i.e., we’re prepared to step outside of our real world and immerse ourselves in stories that take us away to distant galaxies or magical faraway places. For those other people that aren’t prepared to go along with that suspension of belief for any extended period of time, we come across as a little “out there” or weird a.k.a. nerdy or geeks.

  6. i think part of it has to do with the fact that science fiction is the genre that geeks (there must be a better word than that…) very often like and so it is often associated with them.

    i can imagine a lot of people want to disassociate themselves from geeks, either to be “unique” or ’cause they belong to social group where it would be embarrassing to like anything that a geek likes.

    i also think that the way in which geeks express their enjoyment, explore and sometimes get obsessed with science fiction can be offputting to “more mainstream” people, i’m thinking star trek fans here or people who like to immerse themselves into the workings of the world (ie. analysing the statistical likelihood of people developing special powers or exploring the science behind it). i think because a non-geek may not be able to relate to that kind of thing they’ll associate the behaviour with the genre and think “oh, science fiction is for them – not for me”.

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