Geeky pedantism ruins Science Fiction

Definition. Pedantism. The ostentatious or overboard display of one’s knowledge. Especially with difficult, haughty, academic, or otherwise too-technical language.

It might seem a bit odd for me, as a Sci-Fi Guy, to harp on this issue. After all, SF is the genre of ideas — perhaps more than any other — and it’s pretty common for those ideas to be expressed in language that isn’t exactly day-care level or gutterspeak. Sometimes you just can’t boil an abstract or highly complex idea down to a few simple words.

But it seems to me that part of Science Fiction’s problem, as a working genre, is that too many of its writers — and its fans — operate in a closed loop. In order to understand and grasp what’s going on in a ‘cutting edge’ SF novel in the 21st century, you have to have read all the previous ‘cutting edge’ SF going back decades. And who among even the older fans has had the time or patience for that, to say nothing of younger fans from which a new generation of SF readers can be recruited?

Yet the dense SF literature keeps coming. Science Fiction so technically fixated, so obviously trying to be way out past the bleeding-edge of ideas, that it’s borderline incomprehensible. The irony being that Science Fiction, the genre that the Literati sneer at so often, winds up imitating some of the worst aspects of Lit-Snob fiction: it’s thick, it’s byzantine, and it’s written for consumption by a self-selected, small group of editors, writers, and readers.

Some of the problem might be explained by the Geek Virtual Uprising of the last 20 years. The internet is awash with Geeky snot blogs — notice, I name no names — where pedantism isn’t considered a flaw, it’s a virtue. The more you can hang your knowledge out for display, the more you can impress a clique of followers, who will then engage you in your comments with similar displays, and then it’s a big pedant-o-gasm with you and your clique going back and forth, mutually impressing each other with the size and speed of your frontal lobe drives.

Naturally, in this arena, the more obscure your knowledge and the bigger words you can use to describe it, the more Geek cool points you earn.

This sort of thing has been common at Star Trek and general Science Fiction conventions, going back a long time. But the internet era has allowed Geek pedantism to flourish beyond the convention hotel hallways. The Geeks — and I still number myself as one, so don’t worry — are out of their parents’ basements, and they’re not going to sit on the cultural sidelines anymore! The Geeks are taking over!!

Alas, with increased profile and exposure there has not been a marked leap in social skill, amongst us of the Geek persuasion. We e-parade as if it’s obvious that we’re the mental elite of society, yet society still gives us a collective noogie and painfully yanks the back of our collective underwear up into our collective ass crack. And why not? Even I feel the urge to start giving swirlees when I see some of the discussions that take place on-line. Especially among genre writers, fans, and editors, where, clearly, a fortress-like, cliquish mentality still dominates.

By contrast, consider the following: the purpose of all fiction is to convey ideas and story in as few, simple words as possible.

Sound familiar? It’s the dogma preached by most well-known and even many ultra-famous authors. At the root of it — at least by my reckoning — is the knowledge that the more easily you can speak across education, class and age barriers, the broader your market, and the broader your market, the more you can sell.

Stephen King is one of the great bestelling American authors of all time, yet the average King book doesn’t engage in a lot of Geek pedantism — even though King is, by most standards, a Geek himself. Most King fiction can be read and digested by the average middle schooler. Which is, if I recall, where most of us began reading King in the first place. How many middle schoolers are reading current Science Fiction right now? Beyond Japanese comics and media tie-in fiction, like Halo or some of the other cross-product stuff? How much is Science Fiction penetrating with the average kid — again, beyond the media tie-in material? Is there more that could be done to break down the self-imposed walls of the SF “ghetto?”

Larry Niven has written that the SF ‘hood is, in fact, a country club. And he might be right, based on the pure snobbery that appears to infest the hearts and minds of some people who work in and consume SF. But I’ve never been much at home in either the ‘hood or the country club. I’m not a slum guy, I’m not a snooty guy. I’m right there in the middle. A more or less middle-class guy.

Where is the middle-class Science Fiction? The continued, wild success of filmed SF — which is more accessible to the middle-class than much of written SF — seems to indicate that middle-class and middle-brow consumers are big fans of the speculative and the fantastic. But the genre — in the books and sometimes in the mags anyway — still seems to consider the middle-man to be a low creature, unworthy of SF’s support or market appeal. Better to write for the closed-circuit system.

I say nuts to that. And a lot of other not-so-nice words. When I was a teen and in my early twenties, I went in for all that high-minded crap. It was fun as an unreformed Geek to imagine I was partaking in a gnostic sacrament. SF and Fantasy were the ‘smart’ genres and everything beyond was ‘mundane.’ And while I still do like to think that SF and F are more fun than, say, true Literarism, I’ve largely grown away from any need to place “my” genre(s) above any others. In fact, there are often times when “my” genre embarrasses me, because the work being done in it — litrachure, as Alastair Mayer once called it — has become so impenetrable by the Common Reader.

Hell, even when SF&F “litrachure” wins — as with Twighlight or Harry Potter — the internal forces of propriety scoff and disown. Nevermind that J.K. Rowling is richer than the Queen of England and that her books are probably going to be read and enjoyed by numerous generations going forward. She — and Meyer — are ‘beneath’ the notice of the Proper SF’nal Element.

But why? Why is it that commercial success has become a dirty thing? Why is it that media tie-in fiction — and I am proud to say I began my SF’nal journey via media tie-in, thank you very much Vonda McIntyre — gets sniffed at? As if it’s not real? The paychecks are sure as hell real, for the writers and the editors. The fan appeal is sure as hell real, given the massive numbers of media tie-in books that get bought and read every year. Yet this very broad, consumerist success is treated almost like it’s the hallmark of ‘low’ fiction, in the SF&F genres. As if being a Real Writer means you can’t ever touch anything related — even a little bit — to a movie, a video game, a role playing game, or anything else like that.

I suspect pedantism is behind it. Media tie-in and successful commercial fiction smack too much of the ‘common’ for any good genre pedant to sully their tastes with. Better to cling to the obscure, the dense, the Geeky. At least in these things there is the possibility of retaining a hint of Geek cool. Out there in the big bad world of commercial, mainstream fiction, everyone and everything is exposed, the same, unspecial.

Or, rather, unspeshul. Because that’s what pedantism is all about, really. Find a pedant and you find someone who is insecure about their self definition: that thing or those things about themselves which make them stand out, or otherwise set them apart. Unable to stand out or differentiate in other ways, they hang their knowledge out as the one thing they believe they can stand on to boost them above the din and clobber of the masses. The more dense, academic, or ‘gnostic’ the language and subject, the greater the boost. Hence the greater the Speshul.

Again, I understand. I guess at this point in my life, I just don’t have much stomach left for that kind of thing anymore. Marriage, fatherhood, the military, work, all of it has beaten out of me my fondness and my need for Speshul. I’ve seen too many pedants look down their noses at the ‘mundane’ men and women of the world — men and women who run the grocery stores and the police departments, who stand a post in the nation’s hour of need. At this stage I just don’t have much use for those who over-intellectualize, over-calculate, and over-estimate the value of the intellectual “product” they produce, when the ‘mundane’ people of the world keep the crooks locked up and food flowing into the stores and restaurants, and pretty much handle all the ‘mundane’ chores of life that the Speshul think is beneath them.

So no, I am not a huge fan of the way things seem to have been going in Science Fiction, and to a lesser extent, Fantasy. I don’t like that the Speshul mindset — pedantism by another label — is so strong. I even have a somewhat difficult time at conventions and other Geek-centric functions, where my Inner Shatner wants to scream, “Get a life, will yah people??”

SF and F don’t have to be geeky to be good. In fact, I’d argue that some of the better SF and F product of the last few years has been headed in the anti-Geek direction. And it’s not because society as a whole has gone over to the Geek Side. It’s because the Geek Side — or parts of it — have grown up and are now going over to the ‘mundane’ side, where the largest audience and the biggest market share lies.

EDIT TO ADD: Dean Smith re-linked to this piece by his wife, Kris Rusch, titled, “Barbarian Confessions.” I think Kris hits on some of what I’ve hit on, in that SF has grown too far away from the mythic-heroic and gone down some (unfortunate) literary alleys where the audience share gets smaller, the further down the alley one goes. Anyway, it’s a super article from someone I consider a significant mentor. Go read!

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6 thoughts on “Geeky pedantism ruins Science Fiction

  1. I’ve read some of that ultra-dense, high geek-factor SF — whose authors will here remain nameless — and a lot of it reads like buzz-word bingo. I won’t go so far as to accuse the authors of not knowing what half those words really mean, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true of the readers. It’s not quite the technobabble that Star Trek: The Next Generation was so fond of, but it’s close. Some of the things described just wouldn’t work like that.

    A quarter of a century ago (ghods, that long?) I helped create one of the geekiest forums on the planet, BIX, the Byte [Magazine] Information Exchange (perhaps second only to Usenet; in those days, email was rare enough that some SF conventions would host “@” parties, admission required an email addy). It proved a popular hangout for some SF writers, too – Jerry Pournelle, G. Harry Stine (aka Lee Correy), Steven Brust, Rick Cook, and SM Stirling among others. The thing is, most of those writers — and many of the technical writers (as many of the geeks on BIX were at least as a secondary occupation) prided themselves on being able to communicate clearly, precisely and concisely.

    Backing up a bit further, look at some of the Grand Masters of the field. Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein all wrote many popular science articles (particularly Clarke and Asimov) for the intelligent layperson. I have no doubt that if they put their minds to it, they could have written hard SF technobafflegab with the best of them (hell, just look at the title of Asimov’s “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”).

    There are still a few of those out there. My friend Wil McCarthy regularly writes (or wrote) for magazines like Wired, and his novels (The Collapsium, Lost In Transmission, The Wellstone, etc) are diamond-hard SF with enough bleeding edge concepts to keep any geek happy, without descending into borderline-incomprehensible buzzwords just for the sake of buzzwords.

    That’s a goal I aspire to myself.

  2. I’m too young to have been around for BIX, but I’m old enough to have been part of the dial-up BBS scene. Citadel boards, mostly, like Fortress-PC and STadel and so forth. I spent much of the summer of 1992 getting a personal line into my parent’s basement — yes, I admit it, I was a full-fledged basement dweller as an older teen — and figuring out how to get my 386SX and its 2400 baud modem to work with a copy of Fortress-PC that I got from a local Salt Lake Cita-head.

    It’s kind of amazing, seeing the internet now, and comparing it to dial-up. I remember getting on-line for the first time with the old Commodore 64 dial-up community in the late 80’s and thinking, oh wow, this is so totally cool! So high-tech and beyond-the-boundaries!! Now, dial-up and the BBS era are fossilized relics, and everyone in the frickin’ world is on-line. It’s not Speshul anymore to be a ‘net Geek when everyone is ‘net Geeking right along with you. (LOL)

    Anyway, I agree with you 100% about the Grand Masters. These were amazingly intelligent men, yet I can’t say that very many of them ‘talked down’ to the audience. Certainly Heinlein didn’t seem to do that. I wonder if it’s because the original Grand Master came out of the pulp era, when the writing and the concepts were truly aimed at a blue-collar audience?

    These days, too much SF seems aimed at people who have — at minimum — an advanced college degree in either the sciences, “litrachure,” or both? I guess that’s fine to a certain extent, but it’s gonna kill the genre as fewer and fewer youngsters and lay fans will be able to enjoy or understand written SF. Eventually SF might be a tiny little ghetto in the Literary city, and all the middle-class fans will simply consume film and television SF, never bothering to read it at all.

    And that would make me very sad, frankly.

  3. I absolutely love what you’re saying here. I find all too often that science fiction writing strays from the story as a means for the author to flaunt her/his own knowledge of science for vanity’s sake.

    The references to the media tie-ins and King literature hit home in many ways; media tie-ins were my first ventures into the genre, and King is really the guy who got me to be a reader. The Stand was the first book I ever picked up and was like, Wow, this is something. This is the kind of book I want to write someday.

    But there’s nothing wrong with Halo books, or Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. Sure, there are some terrible examples out there, but some it is really entertaining stuff that manages to convey lasting themes and ideas, as well.

    Anybody ever read the Revenge of the Sith novelization? It was damn good, and the same can said for various other such tie-ins. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written (IMVHO), and yet it had little need to stray into overly technical explanations. Stories can be told without all the technical discourse; let the descriptions, HUMAN dialogue, and events explain the essence of science.

    Hell, there’s nothing wrong with needing to do research in order to write a story. Not everyone hoping to write sf can be the next Isaac Asimov. In fact, all that time spent away from the laboratory would likely lend itself to a writer becoming better at his true craft, rather than bettering his vast understanding of quantum mechanics or fuzzball theory.

  4. Just stumbled across this blog post, and it’s got me wondering: are there any dense SF stories written in such a way that they flow like a Terry Pratchett book? It seems to me that something like that could appeal to the non-pedantics while still being a way to display one’s geekiness. Of course a slightly paradoxical setup like that would also likely be fairly difficult to write successfully…

  5. I must confess ignorance on this one, as I have never read Mr. Pratchett. I may not be able to remedy the situation until he’s gone, I am afraid. But the question is a good one: is there any SF thay has sufficient complexity and subtlety to satisfy the “literary” side, while having enough visceral action, and immediate accessibility, to satisfy the lay and entertainment readers. W. Michael Gear is the man who comes to mind, for me. I know the SF of his I have read, tended to do both very well: it was very swashbuckling and entertaining on a basic level, but he usually wove in a lot of complex Big Ideas and theories, too. Of course, he hasn’t written much SF lately. Perhaps none at all? My knowledge of his SF is 20 years out of date.

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