Archive for October, 2011

The Meaning of Being a Nerd. Or a Geek.

Definitions of the terms “nerd” and “geek” show them to be close enough to be synonyms. Both imply a lack of social finesse, the sort of stereotype we’re familiar with in pop culture. The other parts of the respective definitions are as follows (taken from a Google): Nerd–an intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular technical discipline or profession.  Geek–A person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest.

I guess, if you’re a nerd, you have to be good at whatever it is, but if you are a geek, you only have to be enthusiastic. I’ll use them that way for our purpose here. Nerd will denote ability, and Geek, enthusiastic devotion.

Both definitions bring to mind the usual suspects, the computer nerd, the gamer, the science fiction fan.  I would suggest, however, that nerdism and geekism casts a far wider net than that.

Keith Richards is a nerd and a geek. Read his biography, and how he talks about sound, how it changes according to the room, how technology ran amok in the 80’s, with a million microphones and people laying down tracks in separate rooms, and how it detracted from the sound. He says, “You don’t…need a studio, you need a room.” He says elsewhere (could’t find the exact quote) that a musician not only plays an instrument, but plays a space, a room. Never mind the drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, this is a guy who has spent his entire life playing and listening. He is a sound geek and a room acoustics nerd. He is always looking for a new space to make a different sound in.

Turn on Holmes on Homes on HGTV. Mike Holmes neck is as big around as his forehead, and with his Canadian contractor drawl, he may not seem like a nerd. Watch him go through a house, though, and listen to him take the inventory of the previous contractors and inspectors who’ve worked there. Watch him rip apart the wiring, the plumbing, the carpentry. Listen to him insist that it should be done perfectly. Mike Holmes is a construction nerd and a do-it-right geek. How refreshing.

Geeks have passion beyond the ordinary, enough to set them apart. They surprise, annoy, and threaten those who don’t care so much.

I love ’em. I’ve always been drawn to people who are extremely good at something, and who value that something greatly. In the early heyday of public television, in the days before cable, I gravitated to  the televised community college courses shown on our local station. I never took any of the courses, but I watched and admired.

Once upon a time, a writing instructor, the same one who asked me what I wanted most in a novel (see “To Be Transported,” my post from a few weeks ago), asked on another occasion, this time at a post-class get-together, what I wanted from an author. I’d not thought of that question before, but my answer came easily.

I want, above all, for the author to be sincere. Even if I’m not a fan of what is written, and even if it isn’t very good, I can respect the effort and the author if I believe the work came from a sincere place, if I believe the author was a geek for the story. If the story is formulaic, pot-boiler junk cranked out to make a buck, I don’t care. If you have writing skill plus sincerity, then I’m in heaven.

Show me you care. Not about me, but about the thing you are a geek for. Show me your hard-won nerd expertise. And then I’ll think you’re fabulous.




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Loving The Weird; Being Curious About It, At Least

My dad took fairly frequent out-of-town business trips when I was a child, and he would always bring me back a souvenir. I don’t remember what any of them were, except for one. That gift was a book, secondhand, the original Guinness Book of  Superlatives, published in 1955. I have a feeling it was a desperation move for him…he needed something for me, and a used bookstore was all that was available.

Well, I loved it, and I pored over it for months. By that time, the book was three or four years old, and I pestered my dad for a new one, with updated records. The book would become The Guinness Book of World Records, but it wasn’t yet, and there weren’t new editions every year. Oh how I loved reading about the largest multiple birth, maximum number of fingers and toes, largest human, smallest human. Yes, it was gruesome in spots. A little like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. I was less interested in superlatives in the inanimate world, like the longest road, or bridge, or whatever. Contests were okay, like longest beard or fingernails, because that had the aura of the crazy and grotesque about it. I don’t recall if they had categories like “longest egg toss” or “youngest person to bicycle around the world,” but for some reason, I was least impressed by anything you had to really try for and put a lot of effort into. I liked the naturally weird, not so much the unnaturally difficult.

I was always attracted to oddness, because although I looked normal on the outside, I felt quite different on the inside. I knew from an early age that I was something of an odd duck, and so I searched the world (via the Guinness Book of Superlatives) for confirmation that my peculiarities weren’t that odd after all.

As a young child, I didn’t know it wasn’t unusual to be weird only on the inside. I thought I was the only one in the world. I thought you at least had to dress differently, as the beatniks did, in order to be different. I learned in adolescence and young adulthood that internal weirdness is a human trait waiting to be discovered in everyone.

When I was in my early twenties, a friend told me her boss’s husband had died in a car crash. The boss was doing okay, my friend said, in part because she believed the violence of her husband’s death would cause him to be catapulted into a higher spiritual realm. I laughed out loud, then clapped my hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but what an amazing thing to believe!”

By my laughter I did not mean I looked down on her boss for that belief. I meant I was amazed and somewhat delighted by the it; I had never thought of the possibility that an accidental, violent death could improve the quality of your afterlife. Who knew, maybe it was true. Considering all the violent ways there are to die, it seemed like good cosmic justice. The truth/untruth of the belief was irrelevant; either way, it was an expression of faith I felt needed to exist. I appreciated her having the belief.

John Lennon was always my favorite Beatle, because he was the weird one, the one whose ideas, hit or miss, never failed to intrigue, and usually got him in trouble. Once he and Yoko got together, they fed each other’s weirdness, and we were treated to Bagism, the Toronto Bed-In and other such spectacles. Silly and mockable? Kind of. What elevated their actions in my eyes, though, was the reaction against them. Not laughter or simple scorn, but deep, deep anger and hatred that didn’t match their actions at all. Lennon and Ono were doing performance art as social commentary, and this pissed people off mightily. I couldn’t wait to see what they would do next. I would never be able to do what they did, and I appreciated that they had done it for all of us.

Thinking differently from all around you is not something you can force; rather, it’s something you can’t help, that singular way you look at and believe the Universe. It’s not something you strive for, like egg tossing; it’s something that’s just there, like your stomach or your fingernails or the dirt beneath your fingernails, only it’s magic.

In Speculativemartha’s Book of  Superlatives, I would include, among others and in addition to the above, Beatrix Potter, Abraham Lincoln, Julia Child, Jesus, Samuel Clemens, Phillip K. Dick, Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Steve Jobs, Georgia O’Keeffe, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. Weird ones all. This list I’ve given is partial, and doesn’t include any among the living. In the living section, there would be many more, including myself, my family,  friends, and neighbors, and I would probably include you, the reader, as well. With your permission, of course.

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Heavenly Visions From Back Here on Earth

Here is my vision, my personal wish list, in order of priority.

In Heaven there will be:

1) No leaf blowers or other noisy garden tools

2) Universal peace and love

3) An independent brick and mortar bookstore on every block, wedged between a coffee place and a really yummy restaurant.

The bookstores would all be different from one another. Some would specialize in a genre, such as speculative fiction, or lit fic, or mysteries, or whatever. There would even be a store specializing in books I would absolutely hate and think are pure trash.

Each store would be owned and operated by an individual, or couple, or very small group of partners, and would represent the taste and interests of the owner/operators, whose decisions would reign supreme. They could do special orders for anyone who asked, but would not be guided by popular taste in which books they would put on their shelves. No one could ban a book, or be able to remove a book from a store window. The bookseller’s decision is absolute. Blindfolds and white canes would be provided for the easily offended.

I want to be surprised by what I see. It’s great to know what I want and be able to get it, but I also enjoy not knowing what I want, the pure entertainment provided by the idiosyncratic collection of books someone else finds interesting. It is Bookstore as Art. I don’t like everything I see, but I love that it exists. I would visit the genre stores I liked, but would also tag along with my historical romance friends to the stores they liked. I love ideas, variety, comparing and contrasting, and finding the occasional treasure I never would have known existed without the unique perspective of one individual bookseller, not to mention my fellow book buyers.

That is Heaven.

Back here on Earth, we must make do with less. People do try. At B&N, we are familiar with the shelf dedicated to staff picks. It’s not nearly enough; it seems like a minor indulgence, and the individual picks do not form a whole. B&N varies by store, with some locations pretty fun to look at, and others oddly devoid or what I call “real books.” A celebrity weight-loss book by an actress is not a real book to me. Neither is a memoir by the adolescent daughter of a former governor. I wish they wouldn’t use their space so poorly. Give me real books, please. (Yes, I did specify that there would be a bookstore in Heaven specializing in books I hate, didn’t I?)

Bad bookstores need no longer prevent us from having what we want. Just about anything every published is available online, but how does one browse anything so vast? The search functions don’t do it for me.

These days, I do buy most of my books online, some ebooks, some traditional. I buy a lot of books from Mark and Cindy Ziesing, at, and they are able to give me that “browsing” experience, minus the good restaurant and coffee shop next door, alas. The Ziesings are wildly idiosyncratic in their tastes, offering a fair amount of speculative fiction, but also mainstream, slipstream, erotica, downright silly, and unclassifiable. And if they bring a book to my attention, I feel I must buy it from them, and not from Amazon, even if it costs me a couple extra bucks. Call it a finder’s fee. Without booksellers like these, I would have only my own taste to rely upon.

(Examples of books brought to my attention by the Ziesings: Amberville, by Tim Davys, Swamplandia, by Karen Russell, and The Manual of Dectection, by Jedediah Berry. I recommend them all.)

From my non-professional viewpoint, I do believe independents can survive and even flourish online, as long as people know they are there. I suspect the non-ebook will become something of an artifact, that future readers will not have as many books on their shelves, but that those they have will be prettier, perhaps signed, or special editions of some sort. I don’t see quickly-yellowing mass-market paperbacks in our future. There is simply no need for them. Trade paperbacks and hardbacks will survive, and I will enjoy them for the rest of my life.

I’m not willing to speculate what happens after that. But if I awaken from death surrounded by celebrity bios, political blowhard tracts, and weight-loss books, and if that’s the only bookstore there is…well, I’ll know I didn’t make it to Heaven.

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Death and/or Transformation; I Cannot Tell

I read a few days ago that Dreamhaven, a Minneapolis bookstore specializing in speculative fiction, will be closing its doors in a few months, after three-plus decades in business.

I’ve been there probably fewer than half a dozen times, as I am not a resident of the Twin Cities, so I guess the closing doesn’t affect me.

And yet, I can’t help thinking about it.

Here in my suburban Southern California corner of the world, independent bookstores are a rare breed. I’ve gotten used to it. We used to have a some general interest, small shops, but most have been gone for years. It’s Orange County, California, for heaven’s sake; can I expect any different? But Minneapolis, sophisticated, cosmopolitan metropolitan area–well, I hoped for more.

Proprietor Greg Ketter gives his reasons at Dreamhaven’s website, below.

He does not whine; he does partially blame ebooks, if “blame” is the right word. Maybe it’s not a matter of blame; maybe it’s only a matter of transformation. The mention of ebooks makes me twinge, however, because, for the first time, I sense technology is taking something from us.

So far, I’m all good with changes in entertainment technology. I do not long for vinyl records or non-digital transmissions. I do not feel that computer screens ruin our brains. I love that I can listen to radio shows from anywhere in the country on podcasts, find any (just about) movie or TV show online, and any (just about) song ever recorded for purchase. I like ebooks. Like, not love. There are a couple problems with ebooks. You can’t easily lend it to a friend or family member. You can’t mark it up or underline favorite parts. And it makes the brick and mortar bookstore pretty much obsolete.

A decade ago, I published a story called “Heaven,” in Tales of  the Unanticipated, in which my protagonist, an adamantly anti-religion atheist, dies, and finds himself in heaven. He awakens from dying to find himself in a rowboat in the middle of a lake, with Jesus walking across the water toward him. He is not filled with joy at this turn of events, for this guy hates being wrong about anything, and he is thoroughly pissed-off at being wrong about there being an afterlife, even though this afterlife turned out to be everything he would hope for.

You see, he had previously contemplated what he would want heaven to be, were there such a place, and what he wanted was for heaven to be an atmospheric seaside village (upscale, of course), dotted with a variety of gourmet restaurants, and at least one interesting bookstore. That is exactly where he landed. He got that vision of heaven from me, his author.

Once upon a time, long ago, my husband and I enjoyed an interesting bookstore near a couple interesting restaurants we frequented. Friday nights was when it happened. We’d have an Indian, or Mexican, or Italian meal, and after dinner, we would go to the bookstore, which was called Upstart Crow.

It was a small shop, and it had only a smattering of science fiction and fantasy, leaning instead a bit toward lit-fic. I don’t remember seeing the typical bestsellers there though; had the shop survived to present times I doubt you’d ever see a book authored by Sarah or Bristol Palin there. We always bought something. I don’t remember many of the titles, but I do remember the feeling, the wonderful, tactile experience of picking up a beautiful trade paperback, bringing it home, and opening its pages. The anticipation was delicious, as was the sense of discovery–heck, even the possibility of discovery. The delightful randomness of it all.

The difficulty of discovery may be what I find most lacking in the ebook experience. If you know what you want, no problem, just type it in. If you want to browse, though, you’re in trouble. Bestsellers, Top Featured, People Who Bought This Also Bought That. Boring. I want them to show me something neither they nor I know I want, but which might, just might be the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen.

Oddly, this whole If You Like This Maybe You’ll Like That approach is working for me in music, television, and movies far better than it is for books. Amazon, I’m sorry, but your Suggestions For Martha are pathetic. In every area except for books, the technological changes feel like pure transformation, with little to mourn. With printed books, however, I feel a death has occurred.

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To Be Transported

Some years back I took a university extension literature course, during which the instructor asked the question, “What is the number one thing you’re looking for when you read a novel?”

I raised my hand and answered, “To be transported.”

“Yes,” she said, “escapism is a perfectly valid reason to enjoy fiction.” (Imagine her turning and writing escapism on the board.)

But I didn’t mean escapism; that wasn’t it at all. Class went on; answers were flying, and until now, I have not taken the opportunity to clarify what I meant.

To be transported by a work of fiction is a bit like going on a really good vacation. Sure, I get to escape for a while, set aside my responsibilities. Someone else makes the bed, takes out the trash, cooks the meals. Maybe (not always) the weather is an improvement. But as I leave the here and now in a good, I am also going to somewhere new, experiencing something new, perhaps something I could not heretofore even have imagined. I will learn about another place, another society, and I will learn about myself.

I get to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste a new city. Unconcerned with where exactly I’m going, what exactly I need to do, or people I need to deal with, I can sit in a sidewalk cafe, and people-watch. Old people, working people, kids. I wonder about their lives. I see buildings that could not have been built where I live, but which are all but inevitable in this magical, different place. For a few weeks, I breathe different air, and when I come home, I am changed for my experience.

Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House transported me to the Istanbul of 2027 and brought me back again, thoroughly refreshed. It was a marvelous journey. In a sense, it seemed barely science fiction–the nanotech at the center of the interweaving plot lines is not that far in the future. It’s cool and all, but it’s not all that different from what we already have. We can easily grasp it, and McDonald integrates the tech into his characters’ lives seamlessly, so that it is almost, if not quite, in the background. Nonetheless, it is far advanced enough for us to marvel–I particularly like the cars that don’t have to be parked because they can drive themselves around and just come back to pick you up when you’re done at the restaurant or whatever.

Although the nano is critical to the plot, the characters take center stage. There is a boy who wants to be a hero, a yuppie-like couple (she’s an art dealer; he’s a commodities trader), a young woman from the provinces who loves her large traditional family but yearns for independence, an old man of Greek heritage who wants to heal his past, and a young, troubled man, who at first seems to be either mentally ill, an addict, or both. They are all good guys in the tale, although only the child is utterly pure of motive. Okay, the young girl from the provinces is pretty much without sin as well. The others have dark secrets, or have potentially dangerous ambitious.

The relationships in The Dervish House celebrate love of all types, exuberant married love, the love of friends, old loves, and the love we have for children. The themes include love, betrayal of love, and forgiveness. This is stuff that mainstream fiction is supposed to be good at, but this near-future SF nails those themes.

There are bad people in the book too, but we don’t spend much time with them. I don’t remember their names. They really aren’t that important. The good people are the ones who stay with you. And there are other good things, already mentioned by various reviewers–exciting action, a beautifully clear and intricate plot, and a mysterious treasure.

When I open a near-future book these days, I more than half expect to be transported into a dystopian society. This is not that. Yes, it is world with terrorism, violence, and betrayal, but in doses that the human soul can handle. Evil is alive and well in Istanbul circa 2027, but so is courage, love, ambition, responsibility, and idealism. I went there, and I came back, subtly changed. And that’s why I read novels.

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