Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thinking: What is Geek Culture Anyway?

We (finally) saw the end of Lost the other week, and as often happens since being involved with Dissecting Worlds, and faced with a book or show that I liked, I was thinking of how we could fit it in to one of the series. And then I thought, “Well, really we are looking at Geek Universes, and does Lost really count?” Now of course Lost features time travel, mad science gone mad, parallel universes, as well as a good dollop of spiritualism and supernaturalism, so I’d say pretty much “yes” but it doesn’t feel as geeky enough to fit right in. Which led me onto the larger question of just what is Geek Culture anyway?

So, leaving aside Lost for the moment, I think it’s fair to say that being “a geek” is a state of mind and broad set of shared interests, and as such can be hard to pin down. I know many people who watch the same shows as me, read many of the same books, and like the same films, but would shudder at the thought of being lumped in with out-and-out, “bought the t-shirt” geeks like me on some arbitrary social hierarchy. At the same time I've met many pretty obvious geeks who embrace their fluffy inner geek but only in a narrow context, finding it hard to reach outside of their own boxed-in subculture-within-a-subculture.

This makes it hard to draw lines as to what content to cover. Another personal example – I write up sometime book reviews for the Geek Syndicate site, based on genre-themes. Last year I did Fantasy novels, no question there, but this year, looking at Dystopias, I’m clearly in the realm of science fiction, but few of the writers and books, especially going back into the genre, are what you’d call “geeky” books. What they are, however, is often hugely influential on the writers creating modern geek culture, who are themselves often squeezing surprising amounts of “proper culture” into their work, further blurring the gap between the mainstream and a culture that lets face it, a lot of the mainstream looks down on. When they’re not watching Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica, of course.

The latter point is a key one for me. Geek culture is often astonishingly smart, and of course most geeks are astonishingly intelligent and good looking people. Um. Right. But they do seem drawn to intricate, involving worlds, which goes with the territory of being a fan of SF or Fantasy, and it’s a short hop from there to a gilt-edged show like The Wire, or Rome, or The Sopranos, which will be just as alien as Westeros or Caprica to the average viewer, for all they are set nominally in the “real world”. All that is really different is the odd Killer Robot or two, although I have to concede that this seems to make a difference.

So, where are these lines? I mean, doing a podcast on The Sopranos clearly isn’t in the remit, and doing one on say, Star Wars clearly is. But shows like House or CSI have so much technobabble in them they could well be re-skinned episodes of Star Trek: TNG and we wouldn’t touch them, and yet any sort of comic, even something like Maus or Palestine, which are a long way from what the man in the street expects from a funnybook, we’d be all over.

Which brings me back to Lost, a show which seems to sit a little bit in that grey area. In some senses, it’s twisty mythology, strange science and dabbling of sci-fi concepts make it very geeky indeed, but its sometimes perverse refusal to pursue this lines in favour of character drama and an esoteric spiritualism that seems to really get the back up of a certain wing of genre fans for whom Science and religion should never meet (unless the former is debunking the latter of course). It’s a little like the books and films that occasionally crop up in awards list that are clearly a genre product pretending not to be, although with less pretensions of grandeur. It’s also interesting that many of Lost’s ill-fated successor shows; The Event, Fast Forward, etc have all suffered from the same perceived flaw of being if anything more geeky, more mystery heavy, and somehow missing that a lot of Lost’s audience watched because they cared about its character stories. And I guess the creators knew that too, given the decision to focus on an emotive resolution rather than an explanatory one!

So is there any conclusion to what subjects are properly geeky and which ones aren’t? Well no, and I suspect that there is no answer, and what the “geek culture” assimilates as its own may not be as simple as content producers asking people dressed as Stormtroopers at Comic-Con what they want to see in a film or show (which is I think how Sucker Punch was written!) and then sticking it up on a screen or out in print. Which I find quite heartening, really and proves that whilst we have clearly been pegged as an affluent market that needs exploiting, we’re not quite as easily swayed as all that, and we can remain refreshingly hard to predict. And makes it hard for us decide what subjects to podcast about, which, if I’m being honest, is part of the fun.

Go Us.