Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Not Nearly Geek Enough

As I stood with the other congregants, I felt an old tension wash over me. I was so glad to be here, so proud that there was something traditional that would soothe my yearning. But as things got started, I noticed a kind of orthodoxy that has always turned me off. I have been just as turned off by the appropriation of tradition by outsiders, but at least they have sense of distance, and maybe even a little irony. But here I was with my people, and I couldn’t have felt more alone. They were just a little too hardcore for me, or maybe I was a wimp who had once abandoned them, here now with now my tail between my legs. As a Jew who grew up mostly secular, my return to Judaism over the past twenty years has been always walking a precarious line between looking for tradition and keeping a critical open mind. But I wasn’t at synagogue. I was taking archery lessons from Peter the Red, a Queen’s Archery Champion in the Eastern Kingdom of The Society for Creative Anachronisms.

There were a number of other folks there, who like me were a fairly un-athletic bunch. Their life long interests have usually kept them out of the sun and certainly not the people one imagines being proficient with a deadly weapon. Peter’s yeoman, an orthodox Jew by the name of Yaacov ben HaRav Eliezer was quick to point out to me where I had not found my correct anchor (a tooth that you press down with your index finger as you pull the bowstring,) and while he spoke his tztitzes blew in the wind.

But while Peter and Yaacov were gracious patient hosts, for most of the morning I had the strange feeling of not belonging. It’s a feeling I have long grown accustomed to. From the days in middle school when walking down the halls was like a walk across hot coals, to today if I am standing around a party when everyone is watching and talking about the football game on TV. More importantly it's how I've felt in many religious contexts, a believer whose not quite observant enough, or with my wife's family on Christmas, the tree looming over me like the inquisition. At archery practice with folks whom I know I share more than a passing interest in things like fantasy and role-playing, there was no friendly banter, no winking knowledge that what were doing was both awesome and awfully goofy. The nicer I tried to be, the more marginalized I felt. They could tell I just wasn’t one of them.

I hadn’t sewn my own quiver

Recently I attended a science fiction convention in Boston, and looking at the list of events I was already feeling out of my depth. At what part of my geek life had I missed the transformation of dice wielding friendly misanthropes into polyamourous, leather clad martial arts experts? More importantly when did I stop being cool amongst the uncool?

I asked the science fiction author Jay Lake his thoughts on fan culture and he suggested my experiences are not that common: “One of the interesting characteristics of both the writer and fan communities within SF is a very strong social value placed on inclusion. When you see exclusionary cliquishness, it either arises from competition – the Star Wars people arguing with the Star Trek people, for example – or insecurity.”

But like any community with strong internal bonds, how easy is it for a newcomer to feel a part of? For two years or so I wrote a science fiction/fantasy book review column for the Boston Globe. I was pretty proud of it. Since sf/fantasy got so little coverage in the mainstream press, I only reviewed books I thought I could recommend, even as I was critical of them. After reviewing two books that I was quite fond of but suggested that too much science fiction is not character driven, I was lambasted on the now defunct, but extremely popular blog of the book review site Emerald City, which suggested that I was just one of those reviewers that hates science fiction. I felt like I had been kicked out of a club because someone in the locker room saw my circumcised penis.

A certain defensiveness, coupled with a kind of group aspergers, has forced many fans into a cliquishnesses that far exceeds anything I saw with cheerleaders growing up. In fact, while most cliques can have a mean streak built in, what I am seeing amongst geeks is a kind of righteousness due to their culture having been appropriated by mass culture: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and even the popularity of Battlestar Galactica and the science fiction pretensions of Lost. I feel the same righteousness, a sort of chosenness that I am also part of the tribe, even though I don’t always worship at the temple. With most groups there is a shared orthodoxy that keeps the members bound together. It’s not enough to attend services. To really belong you have to agree the earth was created six thousand years ago or that exclusion of Tom Bombadil from the Lord of the Rings film was a grave sin.

Paul Di Filippo, a beloved and prolific science fiction author has had years of experience with fans and conventions. I confessed to him my feelings of inadequacy and he counseled me: “Anyone can plunge into the midst of any SF convention wholeheartedly and warmly embrace the most oddball geeks, nerds, dorks, pointdexters or otakus. You just have to cultivate your inner fan, and see past the superficial tics and mannerisms to the intelligent, entertaining people beneath.”

Like my religious life, my geek life has me torn in two directions. I long for tradition, to be with those that understand the sacred texts, can argue about the finer points, and embrace ritual and custom. But I also need a little distance, a little critical reflection, and maybe a little humor that sometimes, from the outside, this stuff can look a little goofy, and many folks are skeptical, if not downright atheists (one of my best friends is still oddly irritated that I like fantasy and comics books). But I will still attend. I will carry my tattered Dungeons Master Guide into the holy places with pride and hope that I can be accepted, even as go home to my gorgeous (and not Jewish) wife who will insist I put down my polyhedral dice before I roll around with her.

*Cross-posted at Jewcy


Cheryl said...

Oh dear, I'm sorry that still hurts. As I hope I said at the time (we did email about it, right?), what you say is sometimes less important than where you say it. Writing a review like that in any number of SF community venues would hardly raise an eyebrow. Writing it in the Boston Globe, on the other hand, reinforces the view that "the mainstream" (that well known secret cabal) looks down on SF.

You are dead right about fandom.

Peter Bebergal said...

I never got over it, Cheryl!

Actually, we did email about it and you were very gracious, but there continued to be a sense that my views reflected an idea that only an "outsider" would have. On the other hand, I really miss your blog.

Cheryl said...

there continued to be a sense that my views reflected an idea that only an "outsider" would have

Dear me no. Well, not on my part anyway.

What I might have said is that for many SF readers poor characterization isn't an issue, because that's not what they read for. That doesn't mean to say that there aren't people within the SF community who don't wish that more SF writers would pay better attention to characterization. Then again, the "SF community" is no more a monolithic bloc of people who all have the same opinions than, say, "Americans".

What might be true is that only an "outsider", given the chance to plug SF in the Boston Globe, would mention lack of characterization, because an "insider" would know how it would come over to the rest of the community. But that's not a case of not being welcome, its is just a case of not knowing what people are sensitive about.

Anyway, thanks for the kind words about the blog. You might want to check out this, or this.

JeffV said...

I do know Cheryl is the last person in the world who would want to hurt anyone's feelings!

As for characterization--I can think of lots of examples that have good to great characters. Whether they all fit the standard 3-D model espoused by mimetic fiction is another matter, but just as a folktale doesn't always need rounded characters, neither does some SF.


Peter Bebergal said...

What are some of the great character driven sf/fantasy novels in recent years? Here are a few of my picks:

Hyperion (not the whole series, but the first two in particular)
Books of the New Sun (well, not so recent)
Ship of Fools
Shriek, An Afterword
Last Light of the Sun

Cheryl said...

Set This House in Order - Matt Ruff

Christopher Robbins said...

I suppose I would consider Nova Swing and/or Light by M. John Harrison. I prefer my literature to be either character based or idea based. Hopefully a mixture of the two add a dash of the surreal, the post-modern and I'm a kid in a candy store. I'll read things that aren't but it won't impress me. Might amuse me for a few minutes, but that's all. Just like jerking off.

Åka said...

This text really speaks to me. These are important things, I'm sure that the wish to belong somewhere is a powerful driving force for very much of what humans do. I don't know if fandom is very different.

In my experience, there is always a corner where I can find likeminded fans, but I also know that I sometimes feel very alienated at large conventions where I encounter people who are more into costuming or memorizing Star Trek trivia than in things I enjoy. Also at small and focused conventions this might happen: at a roleplaying event where I only meet people who want to accumulate XP or fight over obscure rule details instead of being creative with their character; physically being invisible among tall men in a small room when I really want to join the discussion about the books I love.

I have spent much energy in my life on efforts to make people feel welcome and included, even in places where I myself have been sort of an outsider. I often feel excluded and lonely, and I don't want others to feel that way. Sometimes I think the problem is with me rather than with the group, because I have a strong tendency to find the differences between me and the rest, and pay more attention to them. But it is difficult to be a part of a group, also if many of the people are old friends of yours.