Is It Time For A New Breed of Science Fiction Fan?

As Syfy happily reports its best year ever, one of the burning questions on my mind is this:

If Syfy’s rebrand has helped expand its core audience, does it then follow that the core audience of science fiction is changing as well?

In other words, is there a new ”average” science fiction viewer?

I imagine the audience for science fiction is still largely male.  But I also know that I exist, therefore it’s highly possible that there are more of me out there.

I started this site because I love science fiction—especially science fiction television shows—and because I don’t really know many other people in my age/gender bracket who are like-minded.

Don’t get me wrong—I meet plenty of people who are obsessed with Battlestar Galactica or Lost.  But for me, there’s still something missing.

As I’ve written before, there’s certainly no shortage of “Geeks” on the internet or walking around out there on the street, individuals whose personal obsessions drive their geekiness.  But I can count on one hand the number of people I personally know who would enjoy sitting around with me watching every single last episode of Enterprise, no matter how terrible, in order to satisfy my completionist compulsion. And I know exactly 0 females who would want to do this with me.

At the same time, a few years ago I went to the ginormous Star Trek convention in Las Vegas wondering if I’d meet people like me.  I will say that while everyone I met was very nice, they were definitely not like me.  There was something about the Star Trek fan that also was a little off for me.  I love Star Trek—watching it, discussing individual episodes, comparing the different series, debating continuity issues, playing with toy phasers, etc.  However I don’t remember individual episode titles and I can’t tell you if a particular phaser model is from Star Trek Voyager or Star Trek: Nemesis.  Among the hardcore fans at the convention, I felt pretty out of my league.  As a female I felt even more out of place and at times, kinda creeped out.

To get to the heart of the matter, I find myself somewhat in-between worlds.  I consider the joy that science fiction brings to me a defining part of who I am—a core part even—but a part nonetheless.

Which brings me back to my original question.  Fans and viewers of science fiction—who are you?

If Geek Is The New Chic, Why Am I So Irritated?

The rise of the Geek in popular culture is something I’ve been observing with both fascination and disdain.  It’s a bit like that Intel commercial where Ajay Bhatt walks into a room, gets treated like a rockstar, and is about 30 seconds away from a sweaty, tech-induced orgy.

What did Bhatt do to deserve this?

He invented the USB.

But it’s not just the programmers who have ascended the social ladder.  It’s the gamers, the comic book collectors, the science fiction lovers, fan fiction writers, obscure 90’s indie rock listeners, hackers, bloggers, and twitterers—everyone and anyone whose ever had a single Geeky thought traverse their corpus collosums—all now eagerly and openly lay claim to Geek status.

"I’m such a geek!" "Oh my god, I’m totally geeking out!" "I know this is totally geeky, but…"

The inner Geek that people once kept buried in a deep and labyrinthine closet for fear of complete and utter social alienation has now become the ultimate cultural cache. Without that inner Geek, you’re just normal, and normal is social death.

Perfectly beautiful and socially adept people have taken to broadcasting their geekiness, actually downplaying their physical attributes in favor of flaunting their obscure tastes and former lives as social outcasts.  Social media wonder and self-ascribed geek girl Felicia Day commands 1.5 million followers on sites like Twitter, while the fantasy girlfriend of every male in the galaxy Alyssa Milano boasts less than a third of that.

Don’t get me wrong, Alyssa Milano is very, very popular.  But Felicia Day is more popular, at least among the Interneterati (technology inspired neologisms, by the way, are very geeky and therefore cool.  Use of the word “neologism” however, is not), and these days commanding the web lurkers of the world means having a massively mobile online army at your fingertips.

Actress Ming Na, whose career has found new life on the Syfy Channel’s Stargate Universe, recently revealed in an interview that she loves Star Trek, Star Wars AND Dungeons and Dragon—the trifecta of geekdom.  These days, coming out the Geek closet isn’t a shameful confession, it’s a career move—and a good one at that.

Ming Na, like so many other public personalities who’ve realized that careers can be made and sustained on a diet of Geek, acknowledges that we’ve entered a Geek renaissance:

But you know, I just have always loved it, and I realize now that I’m older that a lot of geeks come into great success and so now instead of feeling like the odd man out, I’m feeling very proud to be one of the power players.  Because, you know, there’s geek power.   I think it’s really great!

Not to be outgeeked by her co-star, actress Alaina Huffman’s recent appearance in Maxim featured her two cents on why she has “geek cred”:

I played Black Canary on Smallville and I was in another sci-fi show, Painkiller Jane—prior to those roles, I wasn’t as in to science fiction but I totally geeked out over Black Canary. I get it. It’s so surreal and fun. I just love how limitless the genre is.

The Geek cup overfloweth with more delights than a record store on Tuesday. Star Trek is cool again.  Chris Pine is GQ’s Breakout Star of the Year. Our President plays with Lightsabers and speaks articulately.  The Syfy Channel enjoys record ratings while its parent network NBC flatlines.  Geeks are the heroes of shows like Chuck and Glee, or the romantic protagonists in sitcoms like Big Bang Theory.  Internet geeks like Tumblr’s David Karp grace the pages of Business Week as one of the Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs of 2009 (he’s a whopping 22).  College students dream of working for social media or tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, Apple or Google. The criminally depressing cubicle has been replaced by slick open computing environments, designed specifically for computer geeks who won’t settle for dusty PC’s running IE6.  Geeks seem to be taller, hotter, thinner, and more successful than ever before.

Now is not the time to be hiding your secret Transformers collection or dusty stack of GI Joe comics.  Chances are your ability to be taken seriously in this life will rely more upon your esoteric knowledge of comic book retcons than your knowledge of the stock market.

For a big-time Geek like me (yeah, I get the irony of saying so in this essay), all of this should be a dream come true, like waking up to a world that suddenly loves everything I love and not only wants me to have more of it, but actively and wholeheartedly throws all of its energy into producing piles upon piles of Geek-related stuff that I can buy and consume and watch over and over and over again.  Before I can even think, “Gee, I wish someone would make that comic/sci-fi/fantasy book into a movie,” it turns out someone already has (or is planning to). It’s a veritable Geektopia.

So why do I feel so irritated?

Maybe it’s because the very concept of popularity is built upon its opposition to the Geek, and the very existence of a popular Geek seems an abomination to the whole natural order of things.

Maybe it’s because I always thought being a Geek was something you earned through severe and unforgiving rites of passage like dreading lunch every day in high school because the only person kind enough to sit with you has down syndrome, or never being asked to school dances, or thinking death might be a reasonable alternative to gym class.

Maybe it’s because some of those who’ve recently begun hanging out at the altar of Geekdom just don’t seem to get it.

I suppose the mainstreaming of the Geek was bound to happen.  It makes perfect sense especially considering how, in the last decade, the technology sector has firmly established itself as the dominant force in today’s economy.  Like any subculture, it’s only a matter of time before the cool hunters and trend forecasters pick up the scent and figure out a way to repackage and sell something to us that we already have—in this case, an inner Geek.

Can anyone be a Geek?

One look at WIRED Magazine would suggest that yes, anyone can be a geek. Geeks can be tech-based, science-based, knowledge-based, entertainment-based, ad infinitum. As Geek culture bleeds over into all realms of our mainstream American culture, this democratization of the Geek has spawned its own internal Geek hierarchy.

American Nerd, Benjamin Nugent’s semi-autobiographical history of the geek/dork/nerd, addresses the oxymoronic phenomena of “the cool nerd,” or the rise in popularity of what Paste Magazine recently called the "meta-nerd." In both instances, this particular branch of Geek subculture worships what Nugent calls “the cultural capital of quirk,” “individualized obsessions” that seemingly buck mainstream trends.  What used to be the necessary ironic enjoyment of lame/dorky/geeky things by hipsters the world over has come full circle and transformed into rich, genuine enjoyment.  Cool kids, the former antithesis of the Geek, are now essentially one and the same.  Irony has all but left the room as more and more people adopt Geekiness as their cultural capital of choice.

But what happens to Geekdom when everyone is a Geek, everything is Geeky, and Geek culture blurs incoherently with mainstream American culture?

It leaves those of us who don’t consider Geekiness something you can do to your hair, or wear on a t-shirt, or buy at the store feeling strangely dissatisfied.  It’s not that there should be an authoritative Panel of Geeks whose job is to review individual applications to Geekhood, deciding who can or cannot belong to the club.  But the club has gotten awfully big, and “Geek cred” just doesn’t seem to mean what it used to. After all, any real Geek should know that you don’t need to lay your Magic: The Gathering cards on the table to prove your Geekiness.

While mainstream culture continues churning out what it decides is cool or not cool (or cool because it’s not cool), there will always exist the hopelessly incurable Geeks whose Geekhood is neither a costume nor an aesthetic choice.

I suppose in the end we incurable Geeks should be grateful that the world is conforming to our cultural tastes and that for the moment, it’s relatively safe to discuss time paradoxes and Star Trek in public.  The secret club of Geeks may not be our exclusive domain anymore, but we can at least try to enjoy the fruits of Geek mainstreaming while it lasts.