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.