Mediating the 21st Century Geek

In case you haven’t noticed, geeks are big.  Geek culture is big, geek subculture is ascendant, being mainstreamed and both ideologically and commercially incorporated by said mainstream. This trend is not entirely positive or negative, but is complicated, like most things.

For this post, I’m going to be looking at two new TV shows that debuted during the WGA-strike-shortened 2007-2008 broadcast year.  Those shows are NBC’s Chuck and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.  Both of these shows star characters who I call geeks, though in the shows, they are often known as nerds rather than/in addition to geeks.

First, let’s talk about geeks vs. nerds.  I’ve been reading Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, which is a cultural studies history of the nerd.  For me, Geek and Nerd are sometimes synonymous terms which refer to substantially overlapping subculture groups.

Here’s the important overlap — Geeks and nerds are conceived of as intellectually inclined, socially mal-adjusted individuals with intense commitment to non-majoritarian hobbies.  Geeks are more associated with fandoms, computers, and media, wheras nerds are more associated with academia and scholarship.

Geeks were the kids who played Magic: the Gathering during lunch.  Nerds were the ones with their noses who spent afternoons at Science Olympiad/Academic Decathalon.  In high school, I was both a geek and a nerd, since I did all of the above.  Geek has become the more dominant term, and is also the one with the greater cultural cache at the moment, given things like Best Buy’s Geek Squad, The CW’s Beauty and the Geek, and the like.

We’ll be bouncing back and forth between nerdiness and geekiness pretty quick here, which is why I wanted to define terms before diving in.

Chuck — Meet the Lovable Geek

In Chuck, the titular character is Charles Bartowski, the head nerd of the ‘Nerd Herd’ at a ‘Buy More’ — TV-world versions of the Geek Squad from Best Buy.  Chuck was an engineering major at Stanford, but was expelled from the school due to the machinations of his former best-friend, Bryce Larkin (who also stole Chuck’s girlfriend away from him).  Five years after his expulsion, we meet Chuck in his aimless path working in the Nerd Herd and hanging out with his even-geekier friend Morgan Grimes.

Chuck is depicted in an archetypal role I’ll call the Lovable Geek.  Chuck is handsome in a goofy way (because everyone important on TV is pretty), kind and intelligent, but awkward around women who aren’t either related or under-age.  For Chuck, being a geek is about being smart and technically adept and interested in things like Batman and Dune and Call of Duty 4.  Morgan serves as a counter-point to Chuck, the Uber-Geek to Chuck’s Lovable Geek.  In Morgan, we see what Chuck could/would be if he had less social acumen.  Chuck is our protagonist geek because he is more accessible, less esoteric in his personality and interests.

The Big Bang Theory — Four Flavors of Geek

In The Big Bang Theory (shortened as TBBT) we find a similar configuration, but with more variants of the geek archetype.  The characters in TBBT are more firmly nerds than Chuck and Morgan in Chuck, but they are also most certainly geeks (they all dress up as the Flash for a halloween party, they play Talisman and Halo, they geek out about acquiring the original time machine prop from the 1960 film The Time Machine.  The four geek/nerds in TBBT are all faculty at and/or employed by Caltech.

The Lovable Geek lead in TBBT is physicist Leonard Hofstadder, PhD.  Leonard is the most socially adept of the four, and frequently acts as the group’s interpreter to the rest of the world (most frequently the neighbor Penny, who Leonard has a crush on).  Leonard and his roommate/friend Sheldon Cooper, PhD are the host for the geeky/nerdy antics of their circle of friends, including Howard Walowitz, an engineer and Rajesh Koothrappali, an astrophysicist.

Leonard’s romantic interest is Penny, a classically pretty bleach-blonde from the midwest who moves in next door to the geek/nerds.  Penny works as a waitress while trying to break in to show business, and is completely ‘Normal.’  She’s Everywoman, frequently the straight woman to the geek’s jokes.

Sheldon Cooper is the Uber-Geek for the show, manifested more properly perhas as the Uber-Nerd.  Sheldon has the highest IQ of the quartet of geniuses, and the complete social incompetance to go with it.  Sheldon is an instance of the double-edge of genius that makes it harder to communicate effectively with the rest of the world.  Sheldon was a child genius, and looks down his nose at those less intellectually capable than he.  Sheldon is the standoffish insular and hermitish geek/nerd, who pulls Leonard away from the rest of the world and more into the realm of calculations and formula and speculation.

Howard Walowitz, the engineer, is the Annoyingly Extraverted Geek.  Howard has no problem speaking to women, in fact he does so all the time, and thinks he’s awesome at it.  However, his confidence comes off as arrogance and the obvious attempts lack any natural charm.  Howard knows about charm and how it’s supposed to work, but is incapable of implementing the techniques he sees from others.

Rajesh Koothrappali is an Indian astrophysicist and the show’s Painfully Introverted Geek.  Rajesh is incapable of speaking to women without either alcohol or experimental drugs.  He represents the ethnic geek, those geeks from recently-developing countries like India, China, South Korea, etc. who are lumped in with the geek world.

Nerds and Race

At this point, I’ll interject with some of Nugent’s theory.  Nugent constructs a continum of racism with regards to nerds/jocks and ethnic stereotypes.  Nugent identifies a Animal<->Machine spectrum, where peoples of different types are conceived as being more animal-like or more machine-like.  Caucasians get to be the ‘norm’ in the middle (yay racism!) with Jocks on the animal side of average and nerds on the machine side.  Africans go further towards the ‘animal’ side due to racist conceptions of Africans and African-Americans as being more animalistic, associated with physical endeavors, etc.  Asians are opposite Africans, placed on the scale towards the Machine side, due to racist conceptions of Asians as being less feeling, more mechanistic and associated with the technical.

Looking at the Flavors

In TBBT, Leonard and Sheldon are conceived as one pair of geek types: Leonard is capable of walking in the ‘average’ world, though his intelligence and geekiness sets him apart.  Sheldon is mostly incapable of walking in the ‘average’ world, cleaving to the world of his hobbies and profession.  Howard tries to court women but is unsuccessful because his confidence is untempered by empathic understanding/skill, while Raj is a ‘great listener’ (he once gets picked up by a girl at a party without ever talking — in bed, she praises his skills as a listener.) who has a mental/emotional block to actually conversing with women.

TBBT portrays four flavors of geek, and it’s no surprise who our romantic male lead is:  Leonard makes efforts to reach out beyond the geek community in initially attempting to pursue Penny romantically, then inviting her into their social group when his initial efforts fail (and by fail, I mean fail to happen at all).  Leonard is the geek interpreter, the middle ground between Penny’s Everywoman and Sheldon’s Uber-Geek.  Normality and Geekdom seem to be portrayed as a continuum like Nugent’s Animal<->Machine spectrum.  As Leonard reaches out towards Penny, his fellow geeks see him moving away from his geek roots.  The show seems to be trying to work out the possibility of a geek dating a non-geek, reaching across the subcultural divide without losing your identity.

On the other hand, Chuck’s interest in Sarah Walker, the CIA agent assigned to protect him, is also a question of identity, but one determined by the Spy Show genre association of Chuck.  Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, complicated by the fact that Chuck is interested in Sarah and suffers through the fake relationship that he wishes was real.  This shows an uncomfortableness with the world of fantasy and make-believe–of course, for Chuck’s life, the make-pretend life is the boring cover and the real life is the dangerous adventure of a James Bond film directed by Judd Apatow.  Chuck has to keep his spy identity secret from those he cares most about, his sister and his best friend.  The secret makes him closer to Sarah, and if he were to leave the spy business, it’d mean leaving her as well.

Chuck, like TBBT tells a story of a geek coming out of his shell and becoming more confident.  His sister hopes that Sarah will help Chuck regain his confidence and gain some momentum in life.  The spy experience moves Chuck from the role of geek slacker and moving towards the geek-chic Analyst/Field Agent.  It’s a kind of geek fantasy — we have to pretend we’re slackers to protect those we love because we’re actually so cool that it’s dangerous, our technical/cultural knowledge is actually highly important to the world.

California — The Land of Geeks

Another notable similarity between Chuck and The Big Bang Theory is that both shows take place in Southern California.  This makes sense, as California hosts many of the centers of geekdom — San Diego ComicCon, Silicon Valley, Hollywood.  Geeks are a predominatly urban and suburban subculture, thriving in places with a preponderance of hobby stores, technological infrastructure, and media entertainment.  A number of other big cities are also geek-tacular, like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Austin, etc.

Geeks and Cybercultural Technophobia

Why are more geeks being depicted in leading roles in mainstream TV/film?  Here’s a possible reason that you might not have thought of.  Geeks are the stand-in for the technocratic citizen of the possible future, a future where everyone is plugged-in, technically adept without trying, communicates predominantly through non-embodied media.   Ambivalence about geeks is ambivalence about technology.  Returning to Nugent’s Animal<->Machine continuum, geeks are cyborgs–with Bluetooth phones and PDA exo-cortexes, we’re becoming increasingly disentanglable from our technology, and not everyone is happy about this.  Sometimes you want to turn off your phone, put up an away message on G-mail and just go run around in the park.

Leonard is negotiating between the romantic subsection of socialization, the scary embodied world of emotions aka ‘real life’ and the insular world of technology, science, and the mind.  It’s a false Cartesian dualism, but it’s one that continues to be propagated and used as argument against cyberculture.  There’s the fear that if we rely too much on machines, become too technically adept and cybercultural that we’ll lose our humanity, and so we use geeks as the testing grounds for those possible futures, trying to see how we can use the power of technology while remaining human.  It’s cyborg identity theory with geeks as the metaphorical (and sometimes literal–I mean, Chuck has a super-computer in his brain — even though it’s all still a flesh-and-blood brain) cyborgs for society to work out its issues.  And Leonard/Sheldon/Howard/Rajesh are test cases for the different ways that becoming technocrats/scientifically adept might affect our social/emotional capabilities.

Of course, I fall on the pro-geek side, but it’s interesting to see Geekdom not only being commoditized, but also used as a testing ground for us to try to resolve our ambivalent relationship with technological development and the growing role of mediated cyberculture.

Review: Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Come

I don’t reach much historical fantasy.  I like history and all, but I tend to like my fantasy in created worlds, and there are sadly big chunks of history that my education has not left me as confident with as I’d like.  I can ramble all night about samurai-era Japan or early China, but I’ve never been that great on European history.

Luckily, this doesn’t matter for Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Come. which occurs during the reign of Elizabeth the 1st, putting up a faerie queen called Invidiana as Elizabeth’s shadowy counterpart, ruler of the Onyx Court of fae under London.  Brennan finds that lovely balance between using history as a Hollywood backdrop and burying the plot in historical detail.  Instead, she doles out information here and there in neat packages, so that a reader such as myself with only a cursory knowledge of Elizabethan history can follow along quite confidently.

The novel follows two courtiers, one mortal and one fae.  Michael Deven is a mortal man seeking to make a name for himself and serve his queen and country.  Lady Lune is a disgraced faerie courtier trying to reclaim her former status.  The intricate overlapping stories contained in Midnight Never Come bring these two characters together in a fashion that delivers in several genre modes: romance, intrigue and mystery.

Something especially notable for this blog is that Midnight Never Come was inspired by a tabletop RPG campaign, most specifically a flashback segment of an ongoing game of Changeling: The Dreaming that Brennan ran several years ago. The Changeling-specific bits have been ironed off and the player-characters replaced by Brennan’s original creations, but it’s interesting to see honest-to-goodness RPG-generated fiction that’s, well, good.  I haven’t done extensive research into which of the many fantasy novels that seem like they’re cribbed from someone’s D&D game actually are, but I do know one very successful RPG->novel adaptation, and that’s the Wild Cards series.

Here’s the geek subcultural complex in action.  Writers like Brennan who are gamer geeks (I know this because I know Brennan–she’s currently in a Scion game that I’m running) in addition to being speculative fiction creators take inspiration from a different aspect of the overal geek subculture, creating a novel that appeals to fans of Elizabethan history as well as those who enjoy reading narratives about the fae.  Writers get inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, of course, but when that inspiration comes specifically from another not-as-often-used (well) aspect of geek culture, it’s notable.

But back to the novel itself. Brennan’s prose is lush and polished, her pacing is muscular, and the emotional lives of the characters reaches out from the page to the reader, so you can feel the struggles of the characters as they try to serve their kingdoms, their people, and themselves while trying to figure out how to deal with someone who has come into their life and stolen their heart at a time when quite frankly, it’s highly inconvenient to be distracted.

Midnight Never Come is a solid departure from Brennan’s first two novels, the action-adventure rides of Doppelganger and Warrior & Witch (being re-published as Warrior and Witch, respectively), but the change is one that Brennan seems very comfortable with.  More novels in the Onyx Court are expected in the future, interconnected but stand-alone novels set at various points in London’s history.  Give it a read, especially if you are a fan of Changeling, historical fantasy and/or Elizabethan England.

2007-2008 TV season post-mortem

Here’s a mostly comprehensive of the scripted shows I watched this last year and my commentary.  More in-depth hashing out of individual shows will likely follow soon.

Pushing Daisies

I watched the pilot to this early, sometime last summer, and expected to cherish the four or so episodes I’d get of it before it got canceled for being quirky, brilliant, and completely unappealing to the majority of TV audiences. Instead, it received rave reviews and had sufficient ratings to earn a full season order early on and then a second season order by the time the short season was done. It would have only been more miraculous if it had been on FOX (for that miracle, see the Terminator comments).

Pushing Daisies takes Bryan Fuller (of Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls)’s quirky morbidity and brings to life the most believable and charming contemporary faerie-tale/folk tale aesthetic that I’ve seen on TV. The omniscient VO narrator should be annoying, trite. But luckily narrator Jim Dale could read the phone book and make it charming. The writing is smart and distinctive, with turns of phrase and repetitions and other elements of a consistent voice that lends to the show’s appeal. The romantic dynamic between leads Lee Pace and Anna Friel provide the ongoing subplot for the series while the duo plus unabashedly profit-centric detective Chi McBride solve murder mysteries in order to collect the rewards, using Lee Pace’s gift for re-animating the dead.

If you are a fan of Fuller’s other work, like faerie tales, appreciate quirky murder mysteries, or have a soul whatsoever, give this one a try.

Life

It’s getting crowded in the police procedural world, what with your CSIs and your NCISes and such. Life sets itself apart from the pack by using an ongoing mystery (Who framed the lead character, and why?) to provide a backdrop for the weekly mysteries solved by leads Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) and Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). Crews is a police officer who was falsely imprisoned for 12 years, then released with a huge-and-undisclosed cash settlement and a job as a detective. His partner Reese is a disgraced former undercover agent trying to get back in the driver’s seat of her own life.

But really, the best part of Life is that Crews was saved from going mad/evil in solitary confinement by turning to Zen Buddhism, thanks to his lawyer, played by Brooke Langton. He approaches his investigations with an uncommon and charming perspective, focusing on intuition, reading people, and questioning common convention. All of this goes on while he struggles to keep his cool while investigating the conspiracy that put him in jail. Damian Lewis puts in marvelous performances, and the ongoing arc shows the ways in which shows are learning to balance a LOST-inspired long-term mystery while maintaining tension episode-by-episode so that casual viewers can hop in and enjoy.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

This show was supposed to suck. Easy money said that it’d be a trite, second-rate attempt to cash in on a once-successful franchise. Terminator’s technophobia is soo late 20th century, I mean, seriously! Fans were lining up to get their hate on.

Too bad for them that the show is awesome. Lena Headey is a powerful and compelling Sarah Connor, a rival to Linda Hamilton’s portrayal according to some. Thomas Dekker, beloved as almost-certainly-gay sidekick Zach to cheerleader Claire in Heroes turns in a strong performance as the young John Connor, coming into his own as a warrior and a leader. And Summer Glau, while in danger of being typecast, is a fine counter-point to Arnold’s oversized overbearing menace as Cameron, an advanced terminator sent back from the future to protect John Connor. The show is true to the tone and material of the first two Terminator films, and completely ignores the plot of the third while stealing some of the more useful material. Brian Allen Greene shows up later on, and surprises those who knew only his 90210 teen-heartthrob-y-ness by being solid-to-good.

In addition to the fact that this show was supposed to suck, it was also supposed to get canceled right away once people discovered it was awesome. SF/F fans mumbling something about a space western are prickly around FOX and genre shows, but this time around the people calling the shots had their brains on straight and were paying attention to the opportunity they had in bringing the show in during the no-new-scripted-shows drought of the WGA strike, and pushed the HELL out of the show as it was starting up, to great success. The first season only got 9 episodes, but in that time they established a good serial rhythm with building plots, continuous tension and interesting character development, especially with regards to Cameron’s emotional development/learning and the 4th dimensional war being fought between future John Connor and Skynet.

Also, it had the 2nd best use ever of a Johnny Cash song in the film/tv medium, implementing “The Man Comes Around” in the season finale to remind us all how much of inexorable juggernauts Terminators really are.

The Big Bang Theory

The first time around, I didn’t like this show. I watched the pilot and took it as comedy making fun of geeks/nerds without the core of compassion for the subculture(s) that is necessary to not offend me. I allowed myself to be convinced to give the show another try, and found that over time, the show finds the right balance between laughing at nerds for being different and laughing about nerdy things because they’re funny.

This show, with a catchy theme song from the Barenaked Ladies (major geek cred, there), stars four nerdy geeks who work as faculty at USC—in physics, engineering, and whatever Raj actually does. Johnny Galecki is the romantic lead male as Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, who is the most socially capable of the gang, alongside neurotic super-genius Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and their buddies, would-be-ladies’ man engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), who can’t speak around women without alcohol or experimental drugs.

Their nerdy equilibrium is shattered when blonde beauty Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in next door. Penny is an average gorgeous woman who moved out from the Midwest to start an acting career and ended up moving in next to Leonard and Sheldon. Leonard is instantly enamored, and the season unfolds as Leonard negotiates between his crush and his friendship with Penny while she acclimates to the area while learning how to understand and befriend the clatch of socially-awkward geniuses.

The show’s stance on the maturity/lack therof regarding geekdom/nerdiness isn’t exactly revolutionary, it refuses to outright condemn the nerds/geeks, and over the season builds towards a bridging of the cultural gap between everywoman Penny (TV everywoman, that is, ie super-hot) and the nerdy quartet.

LOST

Oh, LOST. You lost your way in season three, then found it once more thanks to Desmond “Ulysses” Hume and a realization that while the slashers and shippers love the Jack/Sawyer/Kate triangle, the rest of the audience wants to know what the frack is up with the island.

Season four brings us to a crossroads, with flash-forwards to some of the survivors off the island juxtaposed with the arrival of a mysterious freighter of would-be rescuers who of course turn out to have their own agenda with the island.

LOST season four continues to develop Benjamin Linus as one of the best TV villains of the era, and does a much better job of moving forward the plot and explaining things about the island even as the questions continue to pile up.

How I Met Your Mother

I was actually expecting this to be the last season of the show. A lot of the momentum of the third season seemed to be of the ‘lets get things settled so we can wrap up’ variety, but there’s at least one more season to go, wherin I imagine we’ll see the dynamic of the five friends change around once again as they move from being the people of first season towards the versions Older Ted speaks of them speaking to his children. Barney really gets to shine in this season, and we see Lilly and Marshall dealing with the conflicts of being young married adults trying to make it on their own, while Ted flails about trying to find The One.

Chuck

A lot of shows have a moment that serves as the hook, the moment where you turn to your friend and realize that ‘Holy crap, this is going to be good.’

Chuck’s moment comes before the end of the teaser of the pilot episode when Chuck’s former roommate drops to the floor to the caption of ‘Bryce Larkin – Not an accountant’

Chuck (Zachary Levi) is a mid-twenty-something slacker geek who works at the BuyMore (Best Buy)’s Nerd Herd (Geek Squad) with his best friend, the even-geekier Morgan (Joshua Gomez). He has a loving and supportive sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), who is dating fellow doctor Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin). Chuck opens an e-mail from former roommate Larkin and inadvertently downloads the entire coded contents of the NSA/CIA data intersect. This makes Chuck a human computer in possession of national security secrets. CIA agent hottie Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) and stone-cold badass NSA killer John Casey (Adam Baldwin) are assigned as his handlers, and the show follows Chuck trying to keep his life together while acting as an unlikely secret agent when he gets flashes of the intersect’s information.

The show’s appeal is in its charming humane depiction of the characters, who all grow and react in a way that transcends the easy formula (even when the plot actually follows formula). Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, which is complicated by the fact that Chuck is actually falling for Sarah and Sarah has commitment/job issues regarding former partners. The supporting cast of Morgan, Ellie, Captain Awesome and the other characters of the Buy More lift the show above where it might otherwise settle, and the show is at its strongest when both the Spy and Buy More elements of the story are running on all cylinders.

The show probably has a built-in expiration date, as eventually Chuck will learn how to be a competent agent and be no longer the fish-out-of-water slacker geek. But as long as they keep the balance right and stay true to the characters, it’ll be a great ride.

Bionic Woman

The remake of Bionic Woman was supposed to be this big thing from BSG co-executive producer David Eick. Take the popular 70s girl-cyborg-power show and re-do it in a contemporary setting with a new gloss and the Battlestar treatment.

It flopped. Michelle Ryan was uninspired and bland as Jaime Sommers, the writing never really clicked, and the hidden darkness paramilitary world-saving group angle just didn’t work for me. Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar fame provided some edgy menace as cracked first bionic woman, but the show just never really came together. Think of this as the failed counterpoint to Terminator, showing how you do and don’t make a super-enhanced ass-kicking female character work in a TV show.

Supernatural

CW favorite Supernatural continued to deliver solid road-trip action-horror goodness, but also faltered some due to the fact that the network noticed the show’s popularity and did you guess what — Pandered.

PANDERING IS BAD! Write for your audience, sure, but there’s a clear distinction in most cases between knowing your audience so you can write for them and trying to cash in on demographic desires. The introduction of Bella and Ruby was an attempt to put more of a female presence into the show, but neither of the characters registered with (many) fans the way I imagine CW brass intended them to. Each added to the dynamic of the season, and ended up as not quite the characters you imagined them to be, but their addition felt blatant, sometimes forced, when really all you need to make the show great is putting Sam and Dean in a room together and have them be brothers while kicking ass.

The metaplot kicks into high gear in season three, evolving the mythology in cool ways that make the moral landscape of the show even more gray. The ending of the season was the right kind of infuriating cliffhanger, the one that makes you demand the following season immediately.

Heroes

Heroes was last season’s ‘OMG this show is actually good, and popular too?’ genre hit, and it had a not-insignificant sophomore slump, exacerbated by the writer’s strike. Instead of keeping the Heroes together as a nascent super-team, they split up again and return to a status-quo while secrets about the previous generation of supers emerges, Hiro galavants around in feudal Japan and Peter Petrelli gets a much-needed haircut and a much-less-needed Irish damsel in distress girlfriend.

Adam Monroe makes a great character, and the Hiro in Japan stuff was wonderful, but there was the stench of pandering on some of the plotlines, as well as some serious duds in others – the Wonder Twins plotline turned out to be little more than a vehicle for another character’s arc, and not really in a good way.

The show also continued to slip into objectionable ideology regarding people of color, though it also snuck in some encouraging queerness with the Mohinder/Matt Parkman/Molly family unit.

Heroes has lost some of its luster, but it gave us some very strong episodes and I’m hoping Kring trusts his own voice (and that of Loeb and his other staff) more than thinking he needs to pander to the loudest fans’ voices. I’m all for interplay between creator and fans, but, y’know, done well.

Though, really, just keep putting Masi Oka into dangerous and funny situations so he can say things like ‘Gureto Sukotto!’ and I’ll be there until the show gets canned.

Wrap-Up

I imagine that in the future of media studies, we’ll look back at the 2007-2008 season and talk about the effect of the WGA strike on shows, which ones survived because of or despite of the strike, which shows were killed by it. Despite the drama on the production side, several gems managed to emerge from the mass, and get enough notice to earn themselves a second-season chance. And that at least is encouraging, especially considering the continuing success of some Spec Fic shows, even as the networks try to re-hash every tired trope they can get their hands on trying to replicate Battlestar Galactica and/or LOST.

Tech, Transmedia and Geek Acceptance

In my introductory post,

http://geektheory.wordpress.com/2008/05/21/hello-world/#comments

Chad made a response with enough meat that I’ve decided to respond in a full post here.

—-

I’d agree that technology has changed music distribution moreso than a lot of other things, but I think it’d be unwise to dismiss other changes due to technology.

The internet has created vast opportunities for niche communities to form around interests without specific geographic boundaries. Back in the day, fan culture was an underground circuit of mimeographed fan ‘zines and the conventions. Now, fan cultural activity happens substantially (mostly?) on the internet, with vast fan fiction archives, fan vidding and re-mix culture, live forum thread discussion during episodes, and more.

One of the main lines of argument in my hypothetical future dissertation will be to trace and explain how geekdom has come into the mainstream, from a marketing perspective, from a cultural diffusion standpoint, and more. Watching four year old kids come into the Build-a-Bear workshop and get really excited about making a monkey with a Spider-Man or a Batman bear makes it very clear that many superheroes have come around again in a fashion reminiscent of Superman’s overwhelming omnipresence during the 40s, the fact that comics used to have distributions that Marvel and DC would invade small 3rd world countries to have once more.

Yes, geek culture is being tapped as a source for commoditization, but the other side of commoditization is popularization and normalization. Looking at the new tv shows from last year, a substantial proportion were based on speculative fiction premises: Pushing Daisies, Bionic Woman, Chuck, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Journeyman, Reaper, plus a number of shows from years immediately previous. As CGI and special effects become more affordable, the dramatic and cinematic opportunities of genre television became much greater. Companies are making genre shows to make money, but they’re also making <i>genre</i> shows to make money, and as a result, we’re getting more and more genre material in prime-time, where it gets exposure, seeping into the collective unconscious and changes the definition of what fantasy and sci-fi mean in the broader culture. Sci-fi means Flash Gordon, but it also means Battlestar Galactica and LOST. Used to be that SF literature fans bought every book that was published in the genre just to have more <i>stuff</i>. Now, the glut of genre lit means that we get to pick and choose and be really picky. It’s all out there, with people who wouldn’t identify as geeks spending lots of time talking about Lord of the Rings as a way to really talk about how hot they think Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom are and how hot they’d be together.

Geekdom is gaining acceptance the way anything does — slowly and almost imperceptibly. Plus, making jillions of dollars goes a long way towards getting people to listen to what you say. Peter Jackson will be able to make whatever movies he wants for quite a while, until he completely fracks up and loses people a lot of money.

As for transmedia cultural diffusion — Of course not all Buffy fans will buy the board game and CCG and RPG, but a few will, and the kind of RPGing they do will be different than other modes of RPG-ing, mostly because it’ll probably look a lot like the freeform text-based RPGs people do online. And when the transmedia storytelling requires fans of a property/world to jump between media (and here’s the important part) and does so in a fashion that is both inviting and provides good materials in the multiple media but also makes it so that the different manifestations can stand on their own, then we’ll really see the media/cultural crossover. Things like the Matrix series did the transmedia bit, but not as effectively as they aught.

I’ve watched The Big Bang Theory and had a similar response at first, but re-evaluated my opinion when I decided that there is at least as much a loving treatment of geekdom as their is subtle condemnation. This acceptance comes later in the season, when Sheldon throws Penny’s critique of Nerdmabilia back in her face re: her Hello Kitty stuff, Beanie Babies, etc. And while most of the nerd leads are exaggerations of geek stereotypes, it’s a sit-com, so exaggeration of mockable traits is part and parcel with the genre. And at the show’s heart is the promise that love may be able to grow across the seemingly vast cultural divide represented by the hallway between Leonard & Sheldon’s apartment and Penny’s. And as much as the show makes fun of geekdom, it also makes fun out of geekdom. It’s not a paragon of positive representation of geek culture, but it is a representation of geeks as dramatic leads in their own right.

Geeks are still geeks, but many geeks are also the techno-shamans of our age, the early adopters of digital culture and exist in a feedback loop of SF literature and media going back and forth with scientific and technological development. Geeks may not be the 21st century Hollywood starlets, but they are making our computers, our blockbuster movies, and our bestselling novels. Geeks have made a space for themselves, partially out of being dragged in to be marketed and partially by claiming a space for themselves as the vanguard of digital cultural development.

Re-Post — Review: David J. Williams’ The Mirrored Heavens

Re-post review #3:

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David J. Williams’ The Mirrored Heavens is 21st century, next-gen cyberpunk, a grim imagining of a possible future our current international climate could easily produce. Four separate but inter-reliant plotlines fire like lasers, closing and eventually colliding in a breathtaking finale. Twists and turns are matched with breakneck pacing as Williams catapults the reader ever forward, ever onward with the tale of US counter-intelligence agents Jason Marlowe and Claire Haskell, who are stuck in the middle of the most monumental events since the end of the second Cold War. The Phoenix Space Elevator is humanity’s greatest technological achievement, a display of unified American and Eurasian power. It also goes down in flames before the end of Act One, setting the whole novel (and the series) into motion as various special forces try to hunt down Autumn Rain, the mysterious terrorist cell which executed the seemingly impossible strike.

Williams’ Razors are the 22nd century descendants of the original cyberpunk hackers and netrunners, who operate in a completely realized second world, the Zone. Their counterparts and teammates are Mechs, cyberware-enhanced soldiers who use awesome battlesuits to play out explosive choreagraphies that would have Michael Bay and John Woo exchanging high-fives.

The first novel ends at a turning point that positions the reader ready to plummet headlong into the next chapter of the story, satisfied but yearning for more.

The Mirrored Heavens shows how the cyberpunk genre is a still-valid mode of speculation about our future, a potent warning against global proliferation of arms and consolidation of control. Most of all, it shows the disastrous possibilities which could spin out of a 21st-century Cold War, with the US set against superpowers in both Europe and Asia.

Disclaimer: David J. Williams was a classmate of mine at the 2007 Clarion West Writers Workshop. I consider him a good friend, which of course colors my opinion, though the book’s merits stand on their own.

Re-Post — Review: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn

Re-post review #2 with more commentary at the end.

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Misborn is Campbell-nominee Sanderson’s second novel, and the first in an unknown-length series in the Final Empire. Basic premise: A thousand years ago, a prophesied hero emerged to save the world from ‘The Deepness’ — he did so, then proceeded to take over the world and be a jerk to everyone. The ‘skaa’ peoples were enslaved (note the extra vowel. According to EU Star Wars Corrolary #1, it means they’re all clones. It also means they are not in fact a whole race delineated by their taste in music.) and the Epic Hero turned Lord Ruler sets up shop as absolute dictator with rival noble families serving as his aristocracy.

Mistborn follows street-urchin turned Magic Wuxia asskicker Vin and Charming Rogue Revolutionary Kelsier as they fight against the Lord Ruler and his creepy-as-hell Steel Inquisitors, Terminator-like folks with steel spikes through their eyes.

The magic system of Allomancy is one of Mistborn‘s strengths. Allomancers come in two types — Mistings and Mistborn. Allomancers can burn metals in their system to invoke several different abilities. One enhances physical abilities, one enhances senses, others let Allomancers push and pull on metals (to achieve wuxia-esque jumpy mobility), and so on. Mistings can only burn one metal, while Allomancers can burn all 10. Guess which type our heroes are? The multi-metal-burning, wuxia-style jumping around no-metal-blade using types, of course!

It’s a solid ride, with well-realized characters and one of the more believable romances that still uses standby tale types. I got all the way to the end before realizing that there are only a handful of female characters in the novel with speaking parts.

Please pardon this digression while I rant:

ATTENTION, AUTHORS! — Just because (one of) your lead character(s) is male/female, doesn’t mean you can then get away with having (almost) no other relevant/prevalent male/female characters in the novel! Aside from Vin, there are about 4 important female characters in the novel, 2 of which are already dead, and one of whom serves no more purpose than to be a gossip.

This example brings up a piece of folk wisdom regarding gender representation. There’s a saying which holds that a small proportion of women in a mixed gender group will seem only slightly imbalanced, and a group with 40% of women will seem women-heavy to many. This brings us back to the default-ness of the male gender in many/most societies, and our lingering biases in how people react to women taking action, taking charge, or taking center stage. Many/most geek cultures have been traditionally male-dominated, while some geek cultures have traditionally been female-dominated (fan fiction writers, especially slash fan-fiction communities).

As the demographics change, with a larger number and larger proportion of women in many geek cultures, geek culture must deal with this unconscious bias, as well as the fallacies of tokenism and the valorization/objectification of the beloved minority. Companies/cultural producers take advantage of the demographic, putting attractive geeky women in positions as hosts/objects of fandom, e.g. Blair Butler in G4TV’s Fresh Ink series about comic books. On one hand, it’s good to see women as well as men in positions of note within geek communities, as cultural producers, consumers, or critics. On the other hand, it’s important to look behind the surface and ask questions about intent, motivation, bias and market forces. A female possible host may be just as knowledgeable about the subject as a male possible host, but by selecting the female host, the producers/network/etc. is both giving a woman the chance to exert agency/power in the culture, to give a different perspective, but they are also likely making that decision to further their own profit agendas by playing to demographics. None of these decisions are simple or without nuance.

In closing, I’m glad that Sanderson chose to portray a complex, fleshed-out female lead, but I’m unhappy that in exchange for that one well-developed character, he seems to have neglected to populate his story with more than a tiny handful of other female characters of note.

Re-Post — Review: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

This is one of several reviews essays that I’m re-posting from my personal blog, since they are directly of interest to the mission of 21st Century Geeks.

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Internet-ly famous blogger/writer/digital culture activist Cory Doctorow’s first YA novel Little Brother posits a near future San Francisco that suffers a terrorist attack, leading to a mega DHS crackdown. Our protagonist is Marcus aka W1n5t0n, who is an ex-LARPer turned computer geek and Alternate Reality Gamer. Marcus is detained by the DHS and treated as an enemy combatant, and then declares war on the DHS after being released. In interviews and podcasts, Doctorow has explicitly stated that the book is intended to be pedagogical, with anti-surveilance/DHS techniques, technologies, and ideas spread liberally throughout the book, as well as general techie life-hacks. These educational asides are both a strength and a weakness. Marcus’ voice blends with Doctorow’s own in those explanatory passages, but they usually fall on the near side of being trying. The geeky romance subplot is solid, and fairly adorable.

The world of Little Brother is a few years ahead of our own, but it’s easy to imagine every single thing in the novel coming to pass, right down to the DHS turning a post-terrorist-attack city into a police state, surveilance and profiling gone mad to the point where our own government causes us more terror than faceless nameless terrorists from Otherplacia. I think some people already live in Doctorow’s future, and more are going all the time. There’s a cultural current in the USA (and to a lesser extent in some other Western/Northern developed coutnries) which Doctorow is pointing out. It’s part warning and part polemic rallying cry. Freedom of information as well as of speech.

One of the taglines of the novel is ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25’ — a modification of the older ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30’ from the Vietnam era. Well, I’m 25. The novel is in some ways a rallying cry to Generation Y/the Millenials, a group which most generation dileniations would count me as a part. I grew up with computers in the house, and I can simultaneously remember getting a computer and not really remember not having one. Generation Y is also sometimes called the 9/11 generation — I was a freshman in college when the towers went down, and all of the years of my legal adulthood thusfar have been in W’s America. Little Brother is about being young enough to still have fire under your ass, about being idealistic enough to stick it to a corrupt system and arrogant enough to think that you can personally do something about it.

I loved it, but I don’t think the book was really written for me. There’s a lot of stuff about personal rights and privacy that I already knew, but a fifteen year old nascent geek might not. I think that Little Brother will be the kind of novel that will be the right story at the right time for a great many young people, the exact thing that’s needed to cast back the curtains, to shine a light on the ugly truth behind the USA’s desire to ‘protect’ us.

Balancing our needs for Individual Rights (Privacy, etc.) vs. Security is a question we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves this century, as technology develops at a breakneck pace and international stresses make the rapidly-shrinking and vanishing resource world seem like tight quarters. I won’t be surprised if it gets banned in a number of districts, if it’s the kind of book that teachers risk their jobs by trying to get it onto the curriculum. I intend to teach it when I can, as long as it stays relevant. Maybe if we’re lucky, by the time I could teach it, I won’t need to. Sadly I don’t think that’s likely.

So go read it. Learn how to hack your computer and your life. Then pass the book on to a young person and see what happens.

Hello world

Welcome to 21st Century Geeks, an academic blog focusing on geek cultures and media convergence.

Here are the stakes:

We are entering and/or are already in a golden age of geek culture. Geek movies continually rock the box offices (Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Transformers, Iron Man), video games have become an immensely profitable entertainment medium embraced by the mainstream, and techno-culture is in.

Fan culture has grown and diversified, and convergence media allows for consumers to become cultural producers with wide distribution of their works, with intensely complex and thought-out works that bring into question the validity of IP and cultural ownership which is very visibly bringing copyright and IP into question. Harry Potter slash-fiction may prove to be one of the primary factors that leads to the downfall of copyright and IP laws as we know them. People who grew up in slash-writing communities move into college and go to law school and become IP lawyers years down the road. Each generation re-works the social order in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to fit their generational worldview/zeitgeist.

When the Napster Generation/Gen X/Y/Insert Catchy Generational Label Here hits the age of being able to dictate policy on these matters, we very may well have a sea change on our hands. Music distribution is already changing, especially as stockholders check the numbers and move to handing over the reins to younger execs more in tune with Web 2.0 and other 21st century marketing/business models, where attention is the commodity to be cultivated by a company. In a world where you can watch the whole first season of the smash hit Heroes online and watch one add five times instead of ten adds five times, the advertising paradigm has to change. Combine that with the rise of DVD-sales and direct-to-DVD cultural properties and we’re already in a transition.

What does that have to do with geekdom, though? Well, if we look at things like the short-lived show Firefly which was re-lit for a feature film because of intense fan engagement and DVD sales, or the direct-to-DVD Hellboy and superhero films, we’re seeing that geek media is in the foreground of these transitions in marketing strategy and cultural production. Where geeks go, the technology follows. Or where the tech goes, the geeks follow. It’s a perpetuating cycle of technological advancement and commoditization of cultural production.

As geekdom continues its ascent and moves towards the mainstream, it’s also manifesting more and more distinct subcultural markers. T-Shirts seem to be the primary display of geek style, with obscure video-game references, coding jokes, and markers of affiliation with comic characters providing the canvas for geeks to display their subcultural affiliation. Recognizing and obscure t-shirt is one of the secret handshakes of geekdom. It’s one thing to compliment someone on a Greatest American Hero t-shirt, it’s another thing to identify the Blue Sun logo and greet a fellow Browncoat and reminisce over shared love of Firefly. Geek culture is being marketed top-down and bottom up, with Geek Magazine, Hot Topic’s t-shirt lines, and in situations like online dating, with www.geek2geek.com and www.sweetongeeks.com – where the early adopters of the internet, dissatisfied with the mainstream inclination of most online dating sites, have moved to create geek-friendly dating sites, where the ability to have an intense discussion about time-travel physics or partition a hard drive are the turn-ons, and Mac vs. Pc (with/without Linux) or X-Box 360 vs. PS3 vs. Nintendo Wii are sorting questions for potential partners.

Geek culture has long been decentralized, fractured but interconnected, with cultural properties bringing their fan bases across media, across subcultures. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer follow the tv show, then pick up the collectible card game and move into another geek subculture, then stop by the comic store every other week to buy the comics. Geeks move between the member subcultures of what I call the ‘geek subcultural complex’ – basically a bunch of overlapping subcultural groups that draw from similar sources and have developed interconnections while remaining sufficiently autonomous such that one can be a geek without necessarily participating in any one of the groups, as long as they participate in others.

A superhero comic reader who plays MMOs need not be a programmer or play Dungeons and Dragons to be a geek, but their D&D playing comrades are no less geeks for eschewing MMOs and not being able to tell Captain Marvel from Captain Mar-Vell. There are many ways to be a geek, and they feed into and out of one another. Convergence culture and transmedia storytelling (ala Henry Jenkins) means that these connections are being strengthened as they are commoditized, with IP crossing media with properties like the Matrix series, which had films, anime, video games (console and massive online), comic books, and more. A fan of a world/universe will follow that cultural property across platforms and into various groups, under the rubric of their own fandom, and thus, the groups cross-pollinate. Follow the money. Or, follow the fandoms. It’s another cycle, a feedback loop.

There is lots of geek culture out there. And lots of people talking about geeks. What I hope to facilitate with this community is a place for scholars of geek culture to meet, collaborate, and draw together disparate threads of geek studies as the subculture grows and changes in the age of digital convergence and massive wars over IP/DRM/revolutions in distribution and commercialization.