I've just finished a book that was written by, let's face it, a geek. And the geekness was, alas, there for all to see.
And let me state loudly and clearly that I have nothing against geeks. Geeks know cool stuff--- which is sort of the definition of a geek, someone who is a colossal obsessive expert on, well, something or other. If I need a computer repaired or assembled, I'd get a computer geek. If I want to hike a wilderness, I'd talk to a wilderness geek. If I want to find out something about railroads, I'd talk to a railroad geek. If I want to know about the uniforms and equipment of Civil War regiments, I'd talk to a Civil War geek, or a recreationist geek.
But I've come to the conclusion that I don't want my fiction written by geeks. Because there are many geeks who are so into whatever their lives are about that they failed to acquire an actual life.
I don't want to read a fantasy novel by someone who has spent his entire life reading fantasy novels. I don't want to read an SF novel by someone who knows the throw-weight of every rocket ever built but has never moved out of his mother's basement. I don't want to read military fiction by someone who's played Squad Leader 80,000 times--- and I really don't want to read military fiction by someone who knows every single thing about war except an idea of what it's actually like to be in combat!
(Instead they'd just have a theory of what it's like to be in combat--- x percentage of soldiers will hyperventilate, y percentage will soil their drawers, a Tower musket has a 40% chance of hitting a target at 100 yards' range, but the opposing soldiers in ranks three-deep have a 1/3 chance of making their saving roll.)
There are writers who have never done anything in their entire lives but stare at a book, or sit in front of a keyboard, or hunch over a game board. And (as Jonathan Strahan and I lamented to each other at WFC last year), you can always tell, just by reading their work, who they are.
Instead of engaging in normal human intercourse, a geek writer's characters will spend all their time lecturing each other, even--- especially--- in situations where no normal person would do that. Geeks all have their special cool trivia they think is really neat. They will download at you, and do it mercilessly.
If our geek's writing about the Civil War, say, and two soldiers are meeting, they won't grouse about their officers, or talk about getting laid, or fantasize about their next leave, or complain about the chow, which is what real soldiers do. Instead they'll talk about the relative merits of the Austrian rifle vs. the Springfield, or criticize Johnston's tactics at the Battle of Shiloh.
They're not soldiers. They're soldier geeks. They're not engaging in soldierly behavior, they're engaging in geekly behavior.
Or if they're not soldiers, they're medieval ladies discussing the merits of herbs, or English lords discussing the Corn Laws, or Georgian ladies chatting on about Whig politics, or total strangers agreeing on why socialism is a bad idea and why capitalism will inevitably flourish (under the wise guidance of all-knowing entrepreneurs such as themselves, of course).
Human relationships, on the contrary, tend to be a little more shaky in your geek novel. It helps if the main character's in charge of everything all the time, in total command of reality due to her ability to lecture everyone else ad infinitum, and there's only one suitable character of the opposite sex on the horizon. Then she and he can be Destined for each other, and only the fact that armies of orcs keep separating them keeps them from fulfilling their destiny right away.
Or our geek writer takes Lord of the Rings as a dating guide, and the Object of Desire remains as remote as Arwen until the quest is over and a wedding date can be set.
Or the geek has a whole Theory of Relationships, and someone can give a lecture on how Men are thus-and-so, and Women are this-and-that (at least 85% of the time), and therefore romantic satisfaction will be achieved in at least 65% of cases.
Geek fiction contains no irony. Everything is very deadpan and sincere. Dark Lord equals Dark Lord. Hero equals Hero. Lecture equals Reality. Magic Sword does not equal Big Penis.
(Connie Willis maintains that irony is essential to real literature. I've pretty much decided she's right on the money.)
I note that there seems to be a sizeable audience out there for geek fiction. I imagine geek fiction is read by geeks, who don't know the difference between geek fiction and any other kind.
(However sad, this is not a bad marketing strategy. Geeks probably read more books than anyone. Get your books in solid with the right kind of geeks, and you've found your commercial niche [at least 85% of the time]).
That was irony, by the way. Just in case you missed it.Despite my complaints I have a degree of sympathy for geek authors. While I was never quite a geek, I've spent a lot of my life enjoying geek hobbies. I've played board games and RPGs, I read SF and fantasy, I read a lot of history and biography, and when I play Trivial Pursuit I almost always win.
But I've never mistaken my hobbies for real life. I've always craved real life, even when I didn't have one. I've sought out life, even when I didn't know how. I've always tried to live real life, even when I didn't have a clue.
I travel a lot. I talk to strangers. I eat their candy.
It's inevitable that for the sort of fiction I write, I have to do research. I do tons of research, and inevitably so much third-hand material will result in a certain amount of geekiness being present in my writing. But when it's at all possible, I try to talk to primary sources. To find out about combat I don't read a book by Bernard Cornwell, who despite his comprehensive knowledge of combat has never actually been in a war. Instead I try to talk to an actual veteran. To find out what it's like to be shot I talk to someone who's been shot. To learn about science I talk to actual scientists. Or at the very least I'll try to read books by those people.
So jeez, guys, get out of the basement!
Because there's only one way to know about life, and that's by getting one.
PS: You know the definitive geek science fiction novel? Starship Troopers. There's just no real anywhere in this book.
Kinda weird, because Heinlein wasn't a shut-in by any means. But he had theories of war and society, and he was going to tell them to you, and he did.
I loved Starship Troopers when I was, say, fourteen. I had no reality to test it against.
But now, oh lord. The book so totally fails the Irony Test.
There's so much other Heinlein I'd rather remember.
Labels: geek fiction