Sunday, September 22, 2013

Nerd Love

Hi. I'm Stephanie, and I'm a nerd.

If you were born before 1970, you probably read that as a sort of whispered confession. If you were born after 1980, you probably read it as a boast. (In between? Depends on how tapped into pop culture you are.)

To be a nerd is no longer something to be ashamed of. Nerds are out, loud, and proud. We recognize fellow nerds immediately, not by the pocket protectors but by the Firefly t-shirts and Star Wars stick-figure family decals on our cars. Nerd culture is a phenomenon that coalesced over the last decade, and it has less to do with social awkwardness and über-braininess than with shared interests. Nerds love the same things, and we love them passionately. Most of those things revolve around media: the TV shows, films, comic books, video games, and novels we consume.

Is your dog an AT-AT? Because mine definitely is.

And that's where you come in, dear writer: nerds tend to love the certain stories, and build our culture around that shared love. If you drop a Doctor Who reference into a crowded room, you can spot the nerds as the ones who respond automatically and joyfully to the reference. Start singing "The Hero of Canton" and any proper nerd will be compelled to sing along with you. Anything that comes up routinely in The Big Bang Theory results in an almost Pavlovian response from nerds.

If you get this reference, you are a nerd.

To get into the Nerd Canon, you'd probably have to write speculative fiction, which of course narrows things down considerably. But spec-fic isn't just sci-fi: Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, both longstanding staples of nerddom, are fantasy. Firefly is space fiction, not science fiction. Comic books are huge for many nerds (if you want to find the single biggest concentration of nerds in one place, attend a ComicCon), and are arguably speculative fiction. But much of nerd culture does center around sci-fi: Star Trek and its associated rabid fandom was really the progenitor of nerd culture as a cohesive thing.

ComicCon cosplay
When a few of my nerd friends came across John Scalzi's Redshirts, it became almost a requirement that the rest of us read it. Same for Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. I discovered Hugh Howey's Wool series earlier this year, recommended it, and within weeks it seemed all my nerd peeps had acquired and read at least the first book. Robin Sloane's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore only has the barest hint of speculative fiction, but is about nerds—and became widely read by that demographic.

From a marketing perspective, the best thing about nerds is that we are both obsessive and we often have resources to devote to those obsessions. Whether you are a consumer of nerd content or a creator of that content, you're part of a powerful (and growing) economic and cultural force. Chances are, even if you don't self-identify as a nerd, your entertainment is being shaped increasingly by those who do cheerfully consider themselves part of this influential culture.

How about you? Do you self-identify as a nerd? Do you see nerddom as changing the face of popular culture?



23 comments:

  1. This was an awesome topic for a post, Steph. I'm gonna go with vintage nerddom. I love Star Wars--but only eps 4-6. Love Doug Adams but not Scalzi's 'Redshirts.' Will sit through Star Trek TOS but not the most recent film from the franchise. Enjoyed X-Files but have never seen Firefly. Right now, I'm reading an Adamsesque novel by A. Lee Martinez and I'm loving the affectionate digs at established devices in epic fantasy but have never read a novel one might consider speculative fiction. Loved 'Ready Player One' but don't get the Big Bang Theory reference. Don't know what the Hero of Canton is, but can sing along to any of the Python tuneage (I am a lumberjack, and that's okay ...)

    Anyway, I have no point with all that. But I had fun reading your post and responding to it. :)

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    1. Hey, as far as I'm concerned, Star Wars only has three iterations. The three abominations that followed are, like, Lucas's badly done fan-fic of his own previous work. I confess I didn't *love* love Redshirts, either, but I think it's interesting how many people felt they had to read it because it was part of the canon. My husband said it reminds him of the fashion industry: if you're IN, you're wearing (or reading) the right thing this season. It can get a little silly, to be honest, though most of the time it's all in fun and the stuff we're "supposed" to read/watch is pretty good.

      I love Monty Python, too, and can quote the "I fart in your general direction" speech at people, especially when they annoy me. :D

      Oh! Speaking of nerds, my dear Suze, we started watching Freaks and Geeks! Very fun.

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    2. I ENVY YOU the opportunity you now have in your hands to be watching it for the first time. F&G. No words.

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  2. Great topic. Not sure I qualify as a nerd...wait...does reading The Hobbit and all 3 volumes of LOTR to your 6 year old over the space of 2 years count? Is it contagious? Because as an adult he's read all of Tolkien's most obscure writing, plus seen even the most execrable of movies related to LOTR.

    And I'm currently secretly reading a steam punk novel which I may/may not have the nerve to review for Cephalapod Coffeehouse. I'm at least a nerd wannabe:)

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    1. Well, it sounds like you've at least raised a nerd! LOTR is pretty central to nerd identity, isn't it? I laughed at "execrable," I wonder if that includes that cartoony old version of the Hobbit, which is really terrible but which I so loved as a child.

      I have not got into steam punk yet, but I want to give it a try. Please do review that novel!

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  3. Awesome post, I'm pretty sure I'm a nerd since Childhood. I love Star Wars, Firefly, Farscape, StarGate, Doctor Who, anime... The list is so long I couldn't even finish today. I'm also a bookworm, so...
    I really think the general perception of nerdiness is changing (thanks, Big Bang Theory). I truly enjoyed reading this and knowing I'm not alone ;)

    Jayne!
    The man they call Jayne!
    He robbed from the rich and he gave to the poor,
    He stood up to the man and he gave him what for.
    Our love for him now, ain't hard to explain,
    The hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne!

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    1. "No, no ... THIS must be what going mad feels like!" :D

      Farscape and StarGate I haven't done yet, I should add those to my Netflix queue. My kids (nerds Jr.) would probably love them. My daughter told me I should have said more about anime: I'm really only familiar with Miyazaki, though.

      It is fun finding other nerds, isn't it? When I meet people who identify themselves this way, I often find we have so much other stuff in common, beyond the shared references. But speaking of shared references, you will probably appreciate this sticker (which I have on my fridge): http://www.sprengelmeyer.com/ShopTab/Coexist_BumperSticker_CafePress.jpg

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    2. (Although I'm not nerd enough to sort out how to hyperlink something in a comment, apparently ...)

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    3. OMG!! that Sticker is awesome <3

      Well I'm a nerd junior myself because my father is a crazy fan of everything Sci-fi (StarWars, StarTrek,Quantum Leap, Twillight Zone... and much more). I also remember watching Astroboy and Robotech with him a little girl. I guess growing up in a safe nerdy environment just increases nerdiness in children (and that is great).

      Now an inspirational quote:

      “Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”


      ― Simon Pegg

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  4. I was born slightly before 1950. Look at the pictures. Everybody was a nerd.

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  5. First, a question: were nerds always into comic books/superheroes/sci-fi? Or is this a more recent pairing? Because I never noticed this in 80's movies, where nerds were mostly ridiculed.

    Out of all the shows in your list, the only one I like/watch is the Big Bang Theory. I did like Star Wars as a kid, but once I saw it as an adult I wondered why I liked it in the first place (sorry, fans!) Star Trek? No, please. I never watched it even as a kid. The ones I did watch and liked was "Lost in Space" and "My Favorite Martian". Do these shows count to enter the nerd ranks? ;)

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    1. Oh wow, I forgot about Lost in Space! Whoa. I wasn't allowed to watch much TV as a kid but I remember "Danger, Will Robinson." I'm sure that show counts as vital to some subset of nerddom. :)

      Re: comic books/superheroes/sci-fi — yes, I think so. I wasn't into comics, as that was mostly a guy thing, but authors who talk about their nerdy childhoods, like Michael Chabon, emphasize how important comic books were to them. Sci-fi and fantasy were pretty much on the bookshelves of *all* the teens I knew except the really popular jocky airhead types who didn't read ... and of course from their POV anyone who DID read was, by definition, a nerd.

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  6. I guess I would call myself more of a fringe nerd. I don't enjoy a lot of the recent spec. fiction or even have much interest for it. But...I have sat through all of the Star Wars films more times than I care to count, I've tried Star Trek, but absolutely hate it, watched many of the Monty Python films ("It's merely a flesh wound!"), don't care for fantasy like LOTR or GOT, watched both Trons (Truly, I can't stand the first one. It's entirely too long!), and am in love with the Princess Bride. I guess you could say I'm a bit fickle when it comes to the nerd culture.

    Funny, you decided to discuss this topic, because at my husband's work, they've kind of been coercing a fellow co-worker to become a nerd. He's not seen or read anything you've listed and my husband is determined to get some nerdiness in him! Even though I don't like the films, how can one go through life and NEVER watch Star Wars??

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    1. Seriously, he's never seen Star Wars? Is he, like, from North Korea or something? **boggled**

      Princess Bride ... how could I NOT have mentioned Princess Bride? Thank you for correcting that oversight. We may now commence with quoting the entire movie. ;-)

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    2. "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

      "INCONCEIVABLE."

      "Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while."

      Sorry! I just had to!

      Also, don't forget Office Space and the unending TPS reports!

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  7. Oh, and I would love to attend ComicCon someday if only to be amazed by the true craziness of it all!

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  8. I can't wait for the next Star Wars trilogy. By the way, I must say again, I love your blog.

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