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Sci-fi, Media, Self-Image, Romance, and Modern Day Nerds

I’ve had a couple of conversations with widely various “nerdy” men over the past few weeks that have gotten me thinking about self image, gatekeeping, romance in sci-fi media (books vs. television) and some things that are tangentially related.

Let’s start with the couple that got me thinking about the fact that there isn’t a lot of actual romance in Science Fiction reading – good old Grayson and Halley in the Frontlines (Marko Kloosseries, which I got tired of reviewing book by book but here’s the quote in book four that got me:

“I am so glad for all of this. You, me, us being here, everything that happened to us since Basic. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, Lankies and all. If we end up a frozen cloud of stardust today, I know that I’ve fucking lived.”

My favorite thing about this couple despite the fact that they started in the most eye rolling proximity romance ever, is that they never played games with each other. At least in my experience military men have the emotional competence of your average stone wall, and seeing as most military sci-fi authors are male, it would understandably make romance in this genre difficult to write.  Either way, I think Grayson and Halley are a great example of how some level of romance can work with these stories.

Let’s surf back through the canon to the beginning (ish) – Frankenstein bored me to literal miserable tears but it was, undoubtedly, a romance of a sort, although not what I’m getting at.  I haven’t read enough Victorian era “sci-fi” to comment on the romances there so let’s fast forward to elsewhere.

Another point to start with here is that even with more women writing in sci-fi these days than before, in the days where many women wrote under male pen names and tried to hide a bit, I would have expected more romance to infiltrate the genre. There is some to be found in young adult sci-fi for sure but that’s not a genre I’m too personally interested in.

That said though, men just… it’s like this with men in sci-fi: picture a treehouse with a GIRLS KEEP OUT SIGN nailed to the door?

AND WHAT DO WE GET OUT OF SCI-FI “ROMANCE” BEING A GENRE NOW? LORD HELP US, erotica haha. Oy, alien erotica is not what I’m getting at either and I’m on not on team “hubba hubba”, but team “no thanks”.

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So, we have established that no one wants to read space erotica, or heavy romance in space, but I’m more just talking about healthy relationships. Not to say that women can’t write healthy romance in sci-fi, but, they really don’t. Hello Ms. Octavia Butler, looking at YOU in the Xenogenesis books.

I’m about to embark on a read in October that basically features four dudes on a submarine, which is about where men in the 1800’s were writing sci-fi at.  Another classic sci-fi great, Bradbury, looks at relationships but it’s more in the sense of “how does this function in this society?” Does having reproductive hour at 7pm on Wednesday satisfy marital needs? Yikes, I’m not looking for that either.  He does broadly look at love and the human experience in other stories but I’m looking for specific, healthy, normal examples

Because at the end, I’m going to tie this into modern day romance

Let’s break this line off before it gets weird and touch briefly on how this isn’t necessarily the case in modern day TV and movies – at least on screen, Sci-fi is trying to normalize relationships more.  Look at The Big Bang Theory (2007) – I think a lot of nerds found pieces of themselves in Leonard and Raj, even Sheldon, and guess what? That’s modern day mainstream television featuring the nerdy guy getting the girl! Then girls for the others!

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I can’t talk about romance on screen either without briefing on the Treks – I read in a Rodenberry biography (no I can’t quote where) that he wanted the characters in TOS and TNG to stay single so that (to paraphrase) they can use alien relationships and pursuits as more storyline fodder, although in DS9 and onwards relationships onscreen became a lot more prominent.  To this day, Trek is working to normalize relationships between different cultures and all other kinds of kinds.

Star Wars is the other huge franchise that everyone wants to talk about – hello yes romance there too, forgetting all the brother and sister stuff but later movies? Yes! I don’t watch a lot of sci-fi on television these days but the point is, between Star Trek, Star Wars, and the Big Bang Theory, modern day nerdy men should have observed some healthy relationships onscreen at some point.

So … let me draw this back into literature before bringing it to a close with my thoughts on romance and modern day nerds.

So back at the end of August I was out with my best friend, and every year I feel like we have the same discussion. Yes, our families are fine as far as we know, yes, we are off to DragonCon soon, Yes, we’re both still single.  This year, the conversation got a little deeper after a few alcohols and I heard an echo of the lament that a lot of “modern day nerds” feel – it’s really freaking hard to relate to people sometimes and be ourselves.

Which started my thoughts in this article – what fuels the modern day nerd’s lack of confidence? Where is the obliviousness still coming from? Is it because of the lack of healthy relationships in the media that they consume? Is it that old treehouse mentality that girls have cooties? Opposite sex anxiety? Most females featured in sci-fi have killer body suits and boobs, so where are the women writers in sci-fi here, and are the men not reading it?

That said though, most of the really, really nerdy sci-fi booktubers and bloggers that I’m friends with are married with kids, so this is a very moot point for many people but there are a sect of us that are pretty single still.  I’d like to hear from people on both sides regarding this!

Let’s look at a chat I had with an author/friend the other night. To paraphrase, we were on discord discussing … uh… let’s say Twitter crushes, close enough.

Me: How dense are male nerds?

Friend: We’re dumb as hell. Not even an argument.

Me: I would argue dense, but y’all are far from dumb, haha fair enough?

Friend: Fair enough. There’s a whole lot of self-image stuff tied up in that obliviousness too, especially for nerds

That’s interesting, because although I think it was said jokingly, I had another male (probable nerd) refer to himself as “not a photogenic lot” recently and the kid is not that bad looking at all. So, anyway, that feeds back into the chat I had with my real life friend about our self image issues, inability to meet people, and lack of confidence – where is it all coming from for this little subsect of nerdism?

From a woman’s perspective, I mean do you know how many men have told me my website is stupid? My library is a waste of money? Even at work I take shit when I roll my sleeves up and be myself, and let’s not even talk about the rodeo/horse world.  I dunno what those dudes do in their down time but 95% of the time it’s not reading 😂 The last date I went on was with a self proclaimed “nerd” back in February and it was like having someone mansplain Walden to me (UM… I’m not stupid but I felt stupid) and whew I’ve been afraid to try since.  Let’s just say that in the subsect of failed dating experiences, “nerds” are up there on my list for a litany of reasons.

So …. Do we need healthy relationships in sci-fi media to help some of us along a little bit? Would it help? Is there a link between literature, onscreen media, and modern day relationships? Is it the feeling of being left behind by a rapidly changing culture?

Tell me all your thoughts, and if you read this emotional vomit, thank you 😂

6 replies on “Sci-fi, Media, Self-Image, Romance, and Modern Day Nerds”

Interesting discussion. Being female and of an older generation (before most labels were invented lol) much is new to me. As a history and fantasy reader I can associate with a certain frustration though. I find most women writers way too “fluffy” and cliche as far as romance is concerned. Conversely male writers tend to engage me more but half way through their books I’m longing for a break to constant edge of your seat action. An interwoven bit of realistic romance can give space to chracterisation, ponderings and profoundity that give depth to a story. As to its effect on its readers I do believe reading can be a huge influence of character and social interaction. I’m sure my son’s wife is not only happy he was surrounded by a bunch of no nonsense sisters (who took him in hand girl wise) but also chose to read stories of gallant knights, gladiaters and general heros all of whom where big on respecting, providing for and protecting their loved ones. You are what you need.

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So many good points, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Sounds like your son got off to a good start !

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There’s an Asimov essay in which he says something to the effect of ‘I didn’t know the first thing about women or romance, and I didn’t want to get it wrong, so I didn’t include it in my books.’ Looking back at books from that period, I see married couples and parents, but the relationships are never focused on. Given that most of the famous authors from the period are men, its hardly surprising that boys who grew up reading those books are – and I mean this endearingly – emotionally stunted. If you learn about yourself from these books, there aren’t a whole lot of romantic role models. And that’s without going into some of the more risque cover art that no doubt appealed to those same boys.

For context, I’m single and always have been. Science fiction has, in my experience, always been seen as something of a boys’ club. More to the point, it was a club for the boys who weren’t into sports or other athletic pursuits. I’m not sure if it ever gained much traction in the US, but in the UK Warhammer was the epitome of this. It was all very manly in an edgy teenage way, and girls were not welcomed. Individual exceptions could be made, but the overwhelming atmosphere was very much masculine. Conversely, all the books studied in school that were romances or character pieces were widely viewed as feminine. Or worse still ‘gay.’ (Wales in the early 2000s was not an open-minded place)

The past few years are the ones when I’ve really been part of any wider community, and it’s strange how the opposite is now true. In my D&D group, for example, I’m one of only two singeltons. Almost every science fiction fan I know is in a committed relationship. Going back to that D&D group, I’m the only straight person. Certainly on the fantasy side, but spilling into sci fi fandoms, the LGBT community is massive. I won’t pretend to be an expert in this area, but the LGBT people I’ve spoken to frequently take the attitude of coming to a genre that isn’t based solely on heterosexual coupling, and is maybe a bit more open minded. I can only imagine they’ve been reading different books to me, because aside from Star Trek, I can’t sat say I’ve noticed that warmth.

If there is some kind of point to all this (and I’m not sure I have one) it’s this. The stereotype of the isolated sci fi nerd probably isn’t true of the majority any more. But it’s so deeply rooted in the cultural psyche that it’s a stereotype that will live on for a while yet. And sure, it’s a stereotype that fits me to a T, but I do think representations of science fiction fans needs to change. As someone who saw himself in a lot of the Big bang Theory’s characters, I think that change might be coming. One day, Nerdy will be the new Sexy. But that day is not this day.

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Interesting, I was wondering how this went cross culturally too. That’s where this post went wrong I think, right at the end where you mention the isolated nerd – that’s the part I’m not sure about. I didn’t actually mean to target that group and “nerd” also isn’t my sole identity, although growing up it was most of it. Nerd mixed with farm girl, it was impossible to make friends 😂 Anyway, the identity is definitely that of my BFF though, and possibly the other unidentified friend mentioned here, but overall I was reaching for a broader context I think 😳

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