You’re a Nerd Too!

The Definition of Nerd : an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person ; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits
www.merriam-webster.com/

 

Hello, my name is Ray, and I am a nerd. I fit the above definition in every way. I am quite proud of being a nerd. It means that I read books that don’t have any pictures in them, I can find tiny little nations like Russia on a map, and that I am blissfully unaware of the transient and increasingly expensive pop-culture fads.

I was the kid who could be found under the dining room table with a good sci-fi novel or a stack of comic books when other kids were playing all the various games that can be played with a ball. (Has it ever occurred to you that all such games are essentially slightly more complicated versions of “fetch” which even the most mentally deficient dog can be taught to play in a fairly short time?) I was the kid who woke up my entire household with a gleeful shriek upon first seeing the commercial for Star Wars back in 1977. I was the kid got up at five in the morning to watch Battle of the Planets and Star Blazers before going to school. I was, and am, a nerd’s nerd.

I never grew out of my nerdiness. I graduated high school, and I was still a nerd. I became a police officer, and  I was still a nerd. Now, I’m a forty-seven-year-old fledgling author, and I’m still a nerd. I still stay up to three in the morning to watch an old episode of the original (by that I mean the REAL) Star Trek. If given the chance, I will happily spend hours debating the minutest details of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, or the aesthetic appeal of the design of a Federation starship. As I have already admitted, I’m a nerd. But you, no matter who you are, are a nerd too.

You may not fit into the narrow definition above, but if you think about it hard enough and you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find something you’re a nerd about. I’m focusing here the part of the definition about “one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” All you have to do is replace the words intellectual and academic with something like athletic or entertainment and you find your inner nerd.

If you can name and list the career statistics of every player on your favorite football team, is that really different from knowing the names of all the original twelve Constitution class starship from Star Trek? If you have a deep emotional attachment to a particular softball bat because you are certain it’s your lucky bat, is that so different from a Dungeons and Dragons player who wrecks his entire apartment looking for a misplaced twenty-sided die that has delivered him from many and varied horrible monsters in two times a hundred imaginary adventures? Is watching a Packers’ game in the midst of sub-zero temperatures while not wearing a shirt or coat and having your body painted green and yellow less insane than a person who dresses as a Klingon warrior at a Star Trek convention? Answer those questions for yourself, but be honest.nerd pic 01

Nerds are an anomaly only because the things they are passionate about tend to be out of line with more commonly engaged in activities or hobbies. They do tend to be more intellectually gifted than the average person and, because if this, the things they take an interest in tend to be complex and intricate. Most nerds aren’t snappy dressers because, as long as clothing performs its required functions, (keeping one warm and preserving public decency) it seems a waste of mental energy to think too much about color coordination, or rather or not a given garment is in style at the moment. A nerd, if worthy of the designation, has little or no knowledge of pop-culture unless it intersects with his perception of the universe like, for example, when The Lord of the Rings films were embraced by the general public and became, at least for a short time, part of pop-culture.

But is this gap of understanding between nerds and ‘regular people’ really so different from a married couple in which the wife spends every afternoon enthralled by the Byzantine and unlikely plots of her favorite soap operas, and the husband spends his weekends watching one sporting event after another, listening to endless commentaries about those events, and then arguing about the outcomes with other equally dedicated sports fans? Dedication to something you enjoy is a natural thing. Why is it that such dedication is generally acceptable for a Steelers fan waving his ‘terrible towel,’ but not for a Star Wars fan sporting a “May the Force be with you” T-shirt? The answer is simply that more people have the harmless obsession for sports that have the equally harmless obsession for science fiction, fantasy, or the depths of cosmology. It’s just a matter of scale. More people understand things like soap operas and sports, so those pastimes have no stigma attached to them.

Most generally, a nerd is thinking about things like what might happen if the universe stopped expanding, or the philosophical ramifications Steven Hawking’s information paradox, while at the same time planning new and inventive imaginary traps for the players in his next Dungeons and Dragons game session. They delve deeply into rich fantasy worlds like the Star Wars epics or The Lord of the Rings because the mundane day-to-day existence of modern life is, quite simply, boring. In fantasy and sci-fi realms (or in academic areas such as physics or philosophy) they find mental challenges that, simply put , keep them interested in living.

Nerds ask questions like: why does the Enterprise need a navigational deflector when Klingon ships don’t? Would a clone have a soul? If reincarnation were real, should the current incarnation be responsible for the debts left by his last incarnation? Some would say such questions are frivolous, or even silly, but in truth, such questions have immense value. Nerds see beyond the here and now. They think about what could be and, perhaps even more importantly, what should be.

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I ask those who read this essay to look at themselves and see if they don’t have a nerd in them that they suppress in order to conform to the social pigeonhole called normalcy. Ask yourself if you didn’t secretly admire the poorly dressed kid who was the only one in the school that knew how to run the old reel-to-reel movie projector. Try to remember that you too once had a stash of comic books that you hid from your mother who thought that they would rot your brain. Maybe you can admit that you actually thought playing Dungeons and Dragons might be fun, but you never asked the nerds if you could play for fear of being branded a nerd yourself. If you look hard enough, you’ll find that nerd watching The Thing with Two Heads in some seldom used synapse of your brain. If you do, let him out and get to know him. You’ll probably have fun.

 

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What is Science Fiction?

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What is science fiction? For some, it calls up images of the rather simplistic black and white movie serials like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers with Buster Crabbe. Later generations remember the genre from the classic 1950’s films like Earth Vs the Flying Saucers and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Then there were shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and the culture changing icon Star Trek from the sixties. That decade also brought us the ground breaking 2001: A space Odyssey. Science fiction was entrenched in the global pop-culture. But can anyone truly and accurately define the genre?

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The seventies were replete with sci-fi films and television programs. There were cult hits like Space 1999 and more broad-based hits like the widely popular Six Million Dollar Man. Then there were lesser known and short-lived programs like The Star Lost and The Phoenix. Battlestar Galactica’s short and troubled time on television left and enduring warm spot in the hearts of millions of fans.  Then, of course, there was Star Wars which came, in 1977, to rival Star Trek’s level of cultural saturation. In 1979, Ridley Scotts Alien blurred the line between science fiction and horror.  Science fiction series came and went but the genre was enduring.

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In the eighties we saw the return of Buck Rogers to the small screen with Gill Gerard in the namesake role. Flash Gordon came back the theaters in a film that paid considerable homage to the old serials. Tron made us question what a science fiction film should look like.  Films like Highlander and Krull tested the boundaries between sci-fi and fantasy. Star Trek returned to television with The Next generation and was followed by a somewhat darker interrelated series; Deep Space Nine.  Both Star Trek and Star Wars continued to produce popular theatrical films. By this time critics and prominent literary figures, with few exceptions, derided and dismissed the science fiction genre as intellectual and literary flotsam and jetsam. Yet science fiction not only continued to attract fans; it attracted fans that were more dedicated and enthusiastic than those of any other entertainment genre. Not only did sci-fi fans love science fiction they wanted everyone to know it, and share their passion.

In the nineties Star Trek: Voyager succeeded Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 found a somewhat small but incredibly devoted fan base with a more politicized, less optimistic take on the future.  The X-Files brought contemporary politics and intrigue to science fiction and drew viewers that had never before appreciated sci-fi. The Running Man gave us a wonderfully dark view of what the entertainment media might look like in the future (an exaggeration of today’s ‘reality’ TV) and Gattaca made us wonder if the mapping of the human genome was actually a good idea. The nineties got a bit darker for sci-fi.

The twenty-first century brought us more Star Trek in the form of Star Trek: Enterprise. Debuting in 1999, the first of the Star Wars ‘prequels’ gave the franchise a boost into the new century; but, like Enterprise,  left fans a bit disappointed. A ‘reimagining’ of Star Trek breathed new life into the franchise and the upcoming Star Wars continuation: The Force Awakens has two generations of Star Wars fans all tingly with anticipation. Battlestar Galactica rose again minus the original series’ campiness.  Doctor Who continued the long run of popularity that began in 1963.  Science fiction’s most notable and enduring franchises are still alive and well.

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I have concentrated thus far on the visual media. This is because ii is that which shapes the general concept of science fiction for the general, non-sci-fi initiated public. The vision of great science fiction authors like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Aldus Huxley and George Orwell have, for the most part, have been distorted by film and television. However, the greats of science fiction gave us equally diverse points of view. H.G. Well’s The Shape of Things to Come showed us a socialist paradise brought about by a governmental force with overwhelming technological superiority while Huxley’s Brave New World showed us a future population that was drugged into submission. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers saw society being totally militarized while that same author brought us a peaceful, thriving world in For Us the Living. Even when comparing works by these giants of science fiction and their peers, it is still hard to answer the question: what is science fiction?

Merriam-Webster on-line defines science fiction as: ‘fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component’. That is a pretty broad net to throw over such an expansive a genre. In an attempt to narrow things down sci-fi enthusiasts broke science fiction into a multitude of sub-genres. But, in a way, that only made things worse. I myself do not think that you can define science fiction for what it is. You can define it by what it does or, at least, intends to do.

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Science fiction creators, by and large, want their work to do one of two things; show bright, positive goals for humanity to aspire to, or warn humanity about some dire folly that might befall it. In Star Trek’s many incarnations we see a human race that has not only unified itself, but has joined with other non-human races in a technologically dependent utopia. In Orwell’s 1984 we see technology used to perpetuate war and keep a destitute proletariat in a state of slavery.  Star Wars gave us a simplistic, wonder-filled vision where evil and good were clearly defined.  The X-files showed us a present day with dark foreboding and fear of a mostly unseen, ephemeral threat that consisted largely of fellow human beings in league with otherworldly powers. All of these offerings are considered to be science fiction and all of them were vastly different in both tone and message. What they had in common was that that they wanted to make people think in different ways; to place ideas and philosophies in different contexts.

Science Fiction works with ideas in a way that is different than any other genre. I dare say it may be superior to other genres in that regard. Sci-fi frees ideas and concepts from the confines of the ordinary. It provides a comfortable mental cushion between a person’s steadfast beliefs and ideas that challenge those beliefs. It provides a buffer between the troubling issues of today by providing the psychological distance of an imaginary tomorrow. Science fiction allows us to think about the unthinkable without guilt or shame. It, like its cousin genre fantasy, is a genre that frees us from our own egos and cultural programming and lets us ponder other cultural paradigms. The ‘science’ in science fiction is only a backdrop for the fiction.

So, science fiction at its best is simply fiction with science used as a setting for telling tales or as a catalyst for examining society and the ‘human condition’.  That is where sci-fi triumphs over the other forms of fiction. Science fiction can look into the future and see what might be, while other fiction genres are limited by what is. Science fiction can serve as a warning about the future, or can  provide an ideal to which humanity can aspire. It, more than any other type of fiction, can inspire people to look to the future with hope, while guarding against developing evil. It can bring out our best, or show us our worst. It helps us not to be defined by our own perceived limitations. It may even allow us to act to shape the future rather than simply react to the present.