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[whitespace] What a Long, Strange Trek It's Been

Why science fiction's enduring questions make more sense now than ever before

By Richard Von Busack

THE MOST DISTINGUISHED GATHERING of science-fiction writers and readers in the world took place over the weekend in San Jose. ConJose (a.k.a. the World Science Fiction Convention) drew literary luminaries like Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. LeGuin and local novelist Tad (Outlander) Williams. An important event to be sure, and guess what the logo was: a cartoon shark called "Hugo de Shark" sporting a propeller beanie and a clown suit. How are science-fiction fans supposed to get any respect?

When I called last week, the event's co-chair, Kevin Standlee, estimated about 4,000 people would show up, depending on the economy. "There are at least a thousand or more people who we would classify as 'If you hold it, they will come' people who attend every Worldcon if they possibly can do so," Standlee notes. Which may be a nice way of saying, "Geeks." How else can you classify devotees of the "filking" process?

Filking--which is what the conventioneers did after the workshops ended for the day--is a habit that gives the nongeek pause. It's demonstrated in Roger Nygard's documentary Trekkies. Imagine a singer with an open-chord guitar crooning, "The Klingons, yes, the Klingons, oh, they hated Captain Kirk" to a tune something like "Aura Lee/Love Me Tender."

The hard-core science-fiction fan who would compose a folksong about James Tiberius Kirk instead of old-growth trees might, indeed, be seen, in some lights, as a geek. "Geek" means, literally, "He who bites the head off a live chicken," once seen in circus sideshow acts (vide the 1944 film Nightmare Alley).

The slang term caught on through the Firesign Theater's audio-play I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus, in which a hologramic performer at the Future Fair sizes up the rubes: "I don't want ta stand here with all them geeks a-gawkin' at me." Could be that one definition: a geek is he who gawks--at works of fantasy, at Majel Barrett Roddenberry in the autograph books or at rare old paperbacks that fall apart in your hands.

Change of Hobbit

On the trail of the sci-fi geek, I stopped to talk to Will Griffin of Berkeley's Other Change of Hobbit bookstore. My first impression is of the shop trying to latch onto the movie tie-in. The display of the art of The Lord of the Rings serves as a reminder that the science-fiction geek includes the fantasy geek.

Griffin, a lean party who looks like an El Greco figure, was wearing a green velvet Scot's bonnet with a silver brooch in it. He didn't plan to attend ConJose--he had to work. But we got off-track right away. The important thing to note about the Other Change of Hobbit is that it's an independent bookstore. That meant talking about the perfidy of the publishing business and the squeezing out of the small bookstore by the monolithic big-box stores, a process the Other Change of Hobbit and its sister store, the Change of Hobbit, have survived against all odds.

Then Griffin expressed his opinion on the typical science-fiction fan. There wasn't one. More men then women? No, about the same. More old people than young? "Six of one, half-dozen of the other." And hard sci-fi vs. sword-and-sorcery fantasy? "About 50-50."

Still, he used the word "geek" to describe the kind of serious collector who searches out complete collections of vintage paperbacks. If a fanatic is someone who's redoubled their aim after forgetting their goals, the geek is someone who has redoubled their collecting habits after forgetting the bigger picture--not just the genre but literature itself.

Hell's Cartographer

One geek collector's item is the paperback New Maps of Hell. It's been 40 years since Kingsley Amis recorded a series of lectures at Princeton on the subject of science fiction; they're collected in this long out-of-print book. Amis bowls down the middle: "Science fiction is not tomfool sensationalism, but neither is it a massive body of serious art destined any moment to engulf the whole of Anglo-American writing."

In a poem in the preface, Amis tries to sum up the appeal of science fiction: "What lures us there / is simpler versions of disaster; a web confounding time and space / A world of ocean without shore / a sentence to perpetual journeying. / And simplest, flapping down the poisoned air/ a 10-clawed monster."

Writing in 1960 before cyberpunk, let alone the World Wide Web, Amis didn't understand how the phrase "a web confounding time and space" would stick out today. The poem suggests that the appeal of science fiction is a simpler existence in which the forces that oppress the average man and woman aren't nebulous but real--mean, scaly or shiny.

However, scratch almost any science-fiction writer and you'll find something more: a satirist. Science fiction often uses the future as a distant mirror of the present. Social questions are addressed in parable form; the 10-clawed monster is often a 10-fingered human being.

Bisexual Future

With few exceptions, the science fictions Amis looked at in 1960 was "radical in attitude, conventional in alignment." Then, science fiction was rarely very more sexual than the use of tease to sell it: the big-breasted space girl on the cover of the magazine. Although science-fiction writers could imagine warp drives, few considered that women would eventually escape the kitchens, or that the rigidness of sexual identity would be less and less a preoccupation in the future world.

Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the first important bisexual novels. She writes of a world in which figures are neuter except for a few days a month, during which they might turn into an opposite sex--opposite, that is, to whomever they might be in contact with. LeGuin sees this polysexual world not as a paradise but as a sinister, inscrutable place. (Which of course made it all the more sexually hot.)

Today, gender blur is a substantial part of the new wave of science fiction and fantasy. So here's one definition of the geek: someone who was ahead of the time in imagining sexuality could fade or change. Which seems appropriate, because geekhood is rarely a manly thing (we don't talk of football geeks, automobile geeks or money geeks on Wall Street). Being "unmanly," the geek's way is the perfect way for women to advance.

And to drop the mask, if I wanted to interview a geek, I might as well look into the mirror. Just last night, my ungeek wife and I were dripping tears over the fate of poor Boromir, too weak to withstand the unholy call of the Ring. Bawling over The Lord of the Rings would have made me a geek, once. But who today could count the number of people crying for Boromir, all cold and dead with his sword in his hand?.

The real geeks, then, are those who are unfashionable because they ahead of their time. But the idea of the geek needs to be replaced; it's a mile wide and an inch deep. In the meantime, the geeks at ConJose chose well. The Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay area is a geek preserve, full of geeks in full geek regalia, where geeks, under threat of habitat destruction, still have their burrows and caves.

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From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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