Voice of an alien: Charlotte Church performs her new EP Four with a sci-fi show in London, 5 March. (Photo: Getty)
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Laurie Penny on geek culture and the mainstream: bringing its own problems

Mainstream media have, until recently, been hostile to geeks – who have been hostile back. How do we break the cycle?

If you ever find yourself at a party full of “mainstream” literary types and you confess to having not encountered a book that everyone else considers vital, you may well be met by shocked stares. “Call yourself a reader when you haven’t read Ulysses, or Lolita?”

By contrast, at a party full of science-fiction and fantasy fans, not only is there a much higher probability of pizza, but if you tell them you haven’t read an important book or seen a respected TV show there will be squeals of glee: “Oh, you’re in for such a treat! Let me lend you a copy!” They might also corner you and explain the entire plot while your drink gets flat and your date goes home. I apologise in advance for the ways of my people.

It is my sincere belief that the most exciting literature being created right now is in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. This has been true for some time but the big difference is that geek culture is no longer counterculture. It has gone mainstream. That’s partly because of the internet. Geeks were the first colonisers of what the writer William Gibson termed “cyberspace” and the digital world now rewards the things that they have always done best – unabashed enthusiasm, community-building, nerdy in-jokes, sharing information and big, dramatic arguments. Fans are welcoming to fellow enthusiasts but jealously guard their space from people who seem threatening or just don’t “get it”.

In August, London will host Worldcon (this year styled “Loncon”), the most high-profile and prestigious event in the science-fiction calendar, which includes the presentation of the Hugo Awards – the Oscars of the geek world. On 1 March, it was announced that the television presenter Jonathan Ross would be hosting them. Immediately, a vocal section of the science-fiction community struck back online, horrified that Ross, who has told sexist jokes in the past, had been chosen for the role. Some of the response was anguished and some was vicious, as passionate geeks rallied to defend their “space” from the celebrity comedian like hornets defending a nest.

The odd thing about this was that before geek culture became cool, Ross was one of those celebrities who would have been described as a “stealth nerd”, like when Robin Williams admitted to playing Dungeons and Dragons. Ross writes comics, attends conventions, is mates with science-fiction authors and is married to Jane Goldman, a Hugo-winner. He is also a representative of the snooty, sharp-suited mainstream media that have, until recently, been hostile to geeks, who have been hostile back. When it became clear how upset some people were, Ross withdrew from hosting duties.

Some of the animosity towards Ross comes from the idea that he is part of “old media” – the more respectable spheres of print, television and film production that cater to the broadest and blandest possible tastes. Even as geek culture goes mainstream, it feels threatened by what it considers the mainstream. Many of the most ardent fans see the community that has built up around the stories they love as a “safe space”, a world that is less judgemental than the everyday one. To have that space entered by a television presenter who has earned his living making fun of other people is just the kind of uncomfortable event that fans are struggling with as the dividing line between geek culture and the mainstream becomes as wibbly-wobbly as the space-time continuum.

There has always been a sense of embattled solidarity in science-fiction circles. Decades before geek culture migrated online, fans communicated through zines, magazines and schemes such as the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, which was set up in the 1950s to fly enthusiasts across the Atlantic to meet each other. Some of those fans, like Teresa Nielsen Hayden of the publishing house Tor, are now major players in the industry, opening the way for younger writers of steamy fan fiction and breathless forum-lurkers to become bestselling authors and screenwriters. “Fans aren’t primarily there for the creators,” Nielsen Hayden explained to me. “Fans are there for each other.”

Geek culture is infecting the mainstream at a time when its fans and creators are “cleaning house”. Over the past five years, it has faced down racism, sexism and other forms of injustice on and off the page, on the understanding that dog-whistle intolerance isn’t just execrable, it is also lazy storytelling. Major writers and heroes have been taken to task. This has led to hurt feelings and accusations of censoriousness – but it has also created space for some thrilling new stories. Shortlists for the Hugo and Nebula Awards show genre fiction being used to explore race, gender, sexuality and injustice in ways that are light years ahead of the mainstream. If you haven’t read them yet, you’re in for a treat. Here, let me lend you my copy.

Geek culture is not by its nature more liberal or tolerant than mainstream culture. There have always been reactionaries in the ranks and modern escapist creations such as Game of Thrones are as riddled with gang rapes and gratuitous racism as any other mainstream fiction. The difference in geek culture is its limitless capacity for self-analysis – and eventually, after the pub has closed and tempers have calmed down on Twitter, for self-improvement.

If mainstream art, literature and film could learn one thing from fandom, I hope it is this: its excited utopianism, its sense that, given enough courage and a functioning jet pack, we can create a world that is better, or at least more interesting, than the one in which we deal with the daily humiliations of capitalist patriarchy and computers that won’t turn on. We’re not there yet. But geek culture teaches us that there is only one way to get to the future. We get there together. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred