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FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY. Alternating between personal anecdote, hilarious insight, and smart analysis, Luke Skywalker Can't Read contends that Barbarella is good for you, that monster movies are just romantic comedies with commitment issues, that Dracula and Sherlock Holmes are total hipsters, and, most shockingly, shows how virtually everyone in the Star Wars universe is functionally illiterate. Romp through time and space, from the circus sideshows of 100 years ago to the Comic Cons of today, from darkest corners of the Galaxy to the comfort of your couch. For anyone who pretended their flashlight was a lightsaber, stood in line for a movie at midnight, or dreamed they were abducted by aliens, Luke Skywalker Can't Read is full of answers to questions you haven't thought to ask, and perfect for readers of Chuck Klosterman, Rob Sheffield, and Ernest Cline.
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Ryan Britthas written for"The New York Times, Electric Literature, The Awl, VICE Motherboard, Clarkesworld Magazine, "and is a consulting editor for "Story Magazine." He was the staff writer for the Hugo-Award winning web magazine"Tor.com," where he remains a contributor. He lives in New York City."Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
This book isn’t meant to be the final word on anything having to do with science fiction, fantasy, or any of those related fields. Others have written encyclopedically about all aspects of genre fiction and they’ve done it wonderfully. I think I try to do some of them justice here.
Instead, these essays simultaneously assume a little bit of familiarity with certain subjects (I think most people have seen Star Wars) but try to inform more on others. When it comes to Doctor Who, Isaac Asimov, Sherlock Holmes, or Star Trek, I tend to split the difference; sometimes there’s a lot of background information in the essays, sometimes there’s not. Occasionally, I’ve gone hog wild with the footnotes. This, I believe, simulates talking to me about these subjects, only less intensely.
Mostly, the aim of these essays is to add what I hope are new lenses to the conversations about various “geeky” topics. I’ve often found myself to be the only one saying a certain thing about a certain thing. And so, I decided to write it all down to not forget it. Other times, I’ve heard a common geeky opinion repeated over and over again, and I had to wonder why. As much as possible, I think I try to be fair, but these are only my opinions. Although I can’t prove that I’m not a robot, I’m only human.
Out of the Sideshows
When you’re a kid in a 1994 junior high school locker room, and on the receiving end of towel-snaps and occasionally missing gym clothes, you also quickly pick up on a pervasive amount of slurs. Young boys call other boys terrible things: “queer,” “wimp,” and occasionally the uncreative and rote “loooo-ser.” But something that stung even worse than a towel-snap was often getting labeled a “nerd” or a “geek.” Without getting too weepy or dramatic, I’ll say being called these things sent a simple message: if there’s a club where everyone agrees on being normal together, I wasn’t in it.
If you use Google to find something other than a hip restaurant, looking up the word “geek” will reveal an etymological minefield. Katherine Dunn’s excellent novel Geek Love is tragically not about having a crush on a girl who went to a Star Trek convention with me in 1992, but instead, about a family of circus freaks. Well, maybe replace “circus” with “sideshow” because the historical turn-of-the-nineteenth-century “geeks” were the performers who were often too ridiculous for the circus itself, mostly because their main job was to bite the heads off chickens, Ozzy Osbourne–style. If the boys in my junior high locker room were the circus, then I was in the sideshow: a segregated community in the kingdom of the unimportant.
But as the nerded and geeked boys and girls of the ’80s and ’90s have grown up and become pseudo-adults in this early section of the twenty-first century, we’ve noticed something odd: the Gap suddenly sells Star Trek T-shirts. Seemingly overnight, being a “geek” is cool and news article after blog post trumpets that now not only are geeks hip, but their hipness is here to stay, too. The geek(s) have inherited the Earth, which is why Star Trek, Star Wars, comic book heroes, and fantasy novels are more popular than ever. This, I believe, is broadly true, but there are various space-alien devils in the details, and it’s in those details that I hope these essays live.
So, it’s only fair I tell you now that I’m a bad geek, the same way Roxane Gay—smartly fearing the act of putting oneself on a pedestal—says she’s a “bad feminist.” I don’t do or say or like all the things I’m supposed to, and I’m not beholden to any one fandom. I love Star Trek, but I hate the word “trekkie.”* I’m obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, but am impatient that I’ve met almost no one who likes the Jeremy Brett adaptations as much as I do. I like Doctor Who, but I don’t love Firefly. I like The Avengers and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe explosion, but its dominance and the hype make me tired and occasionally cause uncontrollable eye rolls. Plus, my favorite Joss Whedon creation is the screenplay he wrote for Alien: Resurrection, which makes me super-unpopular with what I would characterize as more “conventional” geeks. I infamously love science fiction literature (contemporary and classic), but am also constantly complaining about how often the SF community ignores supposed mainstream fiction writers in our brave new genre-bending world.
And Star Wars. What to say about Star Wars? On the one gloved robotic hand, I’m like every Star Wars fan you ever met or could dream up: I collected the toys; I read the comics and novels. Hell, at fourteen years old, I even won a few tournaments of the 1996 Star Wars collectible card game. On the other, ungloved, fleshy hand, I’m also a hater, the Han Solo inside of Star Wars making fun of the absurdities contained in that far, far away galaxy. My closest friends and I wore homemade T-shirts to the midnight 2005 premiere of Revenge of the Sith with the words “George Lucas Is a Virgin” emblazoned on our chests. “Real” Star Wars fans weren’t sure what we meant. Did we hate Star Wars? (No.) Did we think George Lucas was so bad at writing dialogue that it seemed like he’d never had sex? (Yes.) Were we making fun of everyone by wearing these shirts? (Yes and no.) Why would someone camp out for a movie only to mock other people who were also camping out for said movie? (Unclear.)* Being the kind of geek I am is weird and confusing, but I’ll attempt to prep you for what you’re in for by telling you that on that very same night I also made out with Jar Jar Binks.
When the whole prequel thing started in 1999, the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was famously preceded by an avalanche of toylike merchandise intended to get you to care about this new slew of characters, most of which you’d never heard of, including but not limited to a pilot named Ric Olie,* a Frog-man named Boss Nass, Liam Neeson with “hippie poncho action,” and, of course, the lovable clown of this particular science fiction circus: Jar Jar Binks. Someone apparently thought Jar Jar’s long, gross tongue was funny, because there are no less than three bits in the movie featuring his tongue doing things that are hilarious. But that’s not the worst of it, because there was also a Jar Jar candy product. It was a plastic holder shaped like Jar Jar’s face, and when you pressed a button, his jaws opened and his tongue shot out. His tongue was a candy that you were supposed to eat. This is a real thing. I have pictures. You were supposed to lick Jar Jar’s tongue to eat this special Star Wars candy.
One of my closest friends and I—both still in high school at the time—thought this was staggeringly hysterical precisely because it was obviously in such poor taste. Star Wars was jumping the space shark way before the movie even came out. There and then, we bought enough of a supply of the Jar Jar tongue candies so that we could eat them in the theatre right before Episode III began. So, six years later, wearing our George Lucas T-shirts, I toasted my friend Justin and we each licked the tongue of our respective Jar Jars. We sucked on Jar Jar’s tongue and got ready to see what (we thought) was going to be the last Star Wars movie ever. And if any of that makes sense to you, then you’ll understand the kind of geek I am. I’m in the club, but I’m doing the Groucho Marx thing of being suspicious of any Jedi order that would have me as a member. There are no real geeks, and there are no “fake” geeks either.
In a great comedy called Adam’s Rib, Katharine Hepburn says this better than I can, and if you feel so inclined, anytime I quote anyone in this book—from science fiction author to fantasy character to unlikely scholar—I entreat you to imagine it in Katharine Hepburn’s voice. In the scene that I like most of all, Hepburn is trying to get her secretary to agree with her on a particular point about this woman they’re defending who shot (but didn’t kill!) her husband. Hepburn is angry that her lackey isn’t chiming in with any opinion at all. The lackey says, “I don’t make the rules,” to which Hepburn barks back, “Sure you do, we all do.”
We all make the rules. And that includes how we define words like “sci-fi,” “fantasy,” and “geek.” In his essay “Science Fiction,” Kurt Vonnegut said that the crowd of science fiction writers only exist because science fiction writers want it that way: “They are joiners. They are a lodge. If they didn’t enjoy having a gang of their own so much, there would be no such category as science fiction. They love to stay up all night, arguing the question ‘What is science fiction?’”
Samuel R. Delany came up with a handy definition of science fiction in his essay “About 5,750 Words,”* in which he claims that “naturalistic fictions are [just] parallel world stories in which the divergence from the real is too slight for historical verification.” Meaning, Wuthering Heights takes place in an alternate universe where a guy named Heathcliff is a massive asshole and Moby-Dick takes place in an alternate universe in which whale attacks were a common enough thing to get upset about. In this way, every kind of fiction is science fucking fiction, which means that everybody who likes reading anything that’s not nonfiction is a massive geek.
Obviously, like a lot of geeks, my hyperbole is worse than my bite. Because even Delany had more to say about the definition of science fiction, speculative fiction, or fantasy than just that. And like Vonnegut’s bygone cronies, or a million other people, I do love to stay up late (and often get up early) to argue the question of what science fiction is, often in the form of an essay like this one. But I’m not one of those joiners Vonnegut talks about and I think that it’s a truism that even those geeks who appear to be joiners aren’t really joiners either. Vonnegut is half-right, because science fiction, and by extension all “geek” communities, is real not just because there are people who claim it, but because there are plenty of people who still mock it. For every one person who says that “being a nerd is cool,” there are plenty who casually and dismissively say, “I don’t really like science fiction.”*
The late great Ray Bradbury uttered the definitive geek battle cry for dealing with the naysayers who don’t “get” geeky interests when he said, “I never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows, or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
Look! It’s those pesky sideshows again, the place where the original geeks came from, at least one origin of why being interested in science fiction, fantasy, dinosaurs, and all the stuff that comes with it makes people feel ostracized and left out. I guess it was rougher for Bradbury growing up literally almost one hundred years ago, but I think he got lucky. Not only did he go on to create some of the best books in any genre ever; he also was childhood friends with Ray Harryhausen, a man who literally brought stop-motion monsters to life. Contemporarily, this would be like J. K. Rowling going to high school and being best friends with J. J. Abrams. But not all of us are so lucky as children, and maybe sometimes, even as adults. Maybe there’s not a comic con near us, or maybe those gatherings aren’t quite what we want. Maybe even today, with the widespread acceptance of Game of Thrones, or literally, every Marvel superhero ever created, there’s still a geek-shunning. And if you think I’m wrong, then why are we still using the word “geek”? It’s still easy to take potshots at “geeky” interests, though it’s getting harder, which is why I’m even able to write this book in the first place.
Part of it, I think, isn’t just waiting for the world to change, but holding our ground. Because unlike Bradbury, I don’t pack up and leave the room. I stay in the room. And I talk. Which I think explains the rest of “geek” culture becoming more mainstream than it was in the previous century, and a lot of factors conspired to make it happen. J. K. Rowling didn’t pack up and go anywhere. And neither did Russell T. Davies when he approached the BBC about bringing back Doctor Who. And neither did George Lucas in 1977. They stayed in the room. They talked about their Muggles and Time Lords and Jedi Knights. They stood up for their geekery and flew their freak flags in ways that transformed us all. They didn’t put their ideas in a box, or a genre. They decided these things were destined to come out of the sideshows and they were right.
What I mean about staying in the room isn’t just about standing up to non-geeks. Oftentimes, the people I’m talking to about the things I love aren’t ignorant or haters, but other geeks, too. We need to figure out why we like the stuff we like! Just because something is “geeky” doesn’t make it good and it’s our job as geeks (of any variety) to question all this stuff, to think about it, and to hold it up to a standard beyond simple genre definitions. On message boards, I’ll sometimes see people say things like “It’s an epic fantasy, it’s supposed to have bad dialogue.” Or “It’s a space opera, it’s not supposed to make sense.” And so on. We can never afford to be clichés in these circles, because the world is all too willing to take those clichés and turn them into unfunny monsters.
Geeks, nerds, fangirls, fanboys, and just plain old fans, all have the same duty. Stay in the room. Recognize we all make the rules. I, of course, think I’m right. But I’m not right forever, and someone, I’m sure, will prove me wrong about one of my many “truths” in this book. That’s the idea. That’s what’s supposed to happen. This is the beginning of a conversation and I hope you have fun. Maybe you’re a bad geek and maybe I am one, too. Maybe you’re not a geek at all. Maybe you’re my sister, who is, somehow, not a geek. Maybe you’re a superintelligent robot from the future, trying to determine which human texts from 2015 you should upload into your hivemind starship. Whatever the case, welcome. It’s 2015. And we’re all geeks. But, maybe just maybe, we’ll not need that word someday. Maybe we’ll give it up, because now that we’re out of the sideshows, done with being picked on, comfortable with our dinosaurs and gorillas, we’ll give up the label. Maybe someday it will be different. Before Doc Brown took the DeLorean into the future of 2015 at the end of Back to the Future, he famously said, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” A road is just a constraint, a direction, a category. Maybe the same will be true for this. Maybe someday we’ll invent new words for “science fiction,” “fantasy,” and “geek.”
And I suspect that day is right now, because you might know “right now” by its other name. The future.
The Birds, the Bees, and Barbarella
Walking in on your parents having sex is one thing, but walking in on a couple of dinosaurs is something else. It’s not necessarily worse, just a little unexpected, particularly if you are not a dinosaur. When we’re kids, figuring out the whole deal with sex is not a mystery we’re all trying to solve; it’s just something that never occurs t...
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