by James Patrick Kelly
Am I a nerd, dear reader? Are you?
We all know that science fiction has had a checkered history as a genre, with many dismissing it as escapist, juvenile if not downright silly. So too have those of us who love SF been stereotyped. Most commonly, we are labeled as nerds, which Dictionary.com https://www.dictionary.com/browse/nerd?s=t defines as “noun Slang. 1. a person considered to be socially awkward, boring, unstylish, etc. 2. an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit.” Dictionary.com supplements this definition with an amusing video that refines the concept of nerdosity by defining some of the adjacent and all too familiar insults we’ve heard. According to What Are The Differences Between “Nerds,” “Geeks,” And “Dorks”? https://www.dictionary.com/e/dork-dweeb-nerd-geek-oh/, a dork is “a silly, out-of-touch person who tends to look odd or behave ridiculously around others” and a nerd is “socially awkward and an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit,” while a geek may be “a digital-technology expert or enthusiast and a person who has excessive enthusiasm for and some expertise about a specialized subject or activity.”
Of course, a slang insult of the twentieth century can evolve into the grudging compliment of the twenty-first. How many of the socially outcast computer nerds or science geeks of middle school grew into their expertise to become successful and rich adults? It says right here that Bill Gates https://www.visualcapitalist.com/bill-gates-nerd-multi-billionaire/ was a nerd. Not only does Elon Musk geek out on games https://thenextweb.com/gaming/2017/01/10/watch-elon-musk-geeks-games/, but on cars, solar power, space, and tunnels as well. And it’s not only tech billionaires for whom “excessive enthusiasms” pay off. Many of my friends who write SF have histories of the kind of intelligent single-mindedness that might once have earned them scorn. So we now embrace our inner geeks and nerds and are proud to proclaim our allegiance to our creative non-social obsessions.
For instance, one of my favorite podcasts is the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy https://geeksguideshow.com, a podcast hosted by author David Barr Kirtley http://davidbarrkirtley.com and produced by editor John Joseph Adams http://www.johnjosephadams.com featuring conversations about science fiction, movies, games, and comics, as well as related subjects such as science, history, and critical thinking. Among the well-known geeks who have appeared on GGG are George R.R. Martin https://georgerrmartin.com, Ursula K. Le Guin https://www.ursulakleguin.com, Neil Gaiman https://neilgaiman.com, Margaret Atwood http://margaretatwood.ca, Neil deGrasse Tyson https://haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/, and Paul Krugman https://www.nytimes.com/by/paul-krugman, to name just six. And it was Scottish SF novelist—and known punster—Ken MacLeod http://kenmacleod.blogspot.com who was the first to nickname the Technological Singularity https://io9.gizmodo.com/what-is-the-singularity-and-will-you-live-to-see-it-5534848 the “Rapture of the Nerds.”
But I digress. One pernicious stereotype about SF geeks and nerds has always bothered me above all. Apparently we’ve got our noses so buried in our books and comics, and are so busy rolling twelve- sided dice and translating The Lord of the Rings into Klingon https://www.deviantart.com/knightswhodontsayni/art/Lord-of-the-Rings-in-Klingon-208283366, that we have no time to watch sports, much less play them. Vile calumny, say I!
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In September last year I posted this on my Facebook page: “I intend to skewer the idea that science fiction fans don’t care about sports. Are there any sports teams or individuals that you avidly follow?” I got over a hundred responses, enough to fill up several columns. Here are just a dozen from regular ’Mov’s contributors.
Rick Wilber http://rickwilber.net is a season ticket holder for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. ”I grew up in a baseball family, watching my dad play for the Red Sox, Phillies, and Cardinals and coach for the White Sox before turning to Triple-A managing, where he won a couple of pennants. I played scholarship baseball, football, and basketball in college. I wasn’t very good, really, but it got me a free education.”
Alex Irvine http://alexirvine.blogspot.com roots for every Detroit team (especially Tigers and Red Wings), University of Michigan, and the New England Revolution, and also follows whichever European soccer teams have American players. “I love all sports—how can you not love seeing the amazing things the human body can do?”
Suzanne Palmer http://zanzjan.net follows the Red Sox, “although I spent a few years being mad about them firing Francona. I wasn’t particularly into baseball when I was younger, but both my brothers were super-avid fans and when they passed it felt like getting into baseball was one way of sort of carrying on their memory.”
Christopher Rowe https://christopherrowe.typepad.com says, “I have followed professional cycling closely for twenty years and even wrote a science fiction novella about a bicycle race. I’ve also participated in bike races and am a certified USA Cycling official.”
Will McIntosh https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_McIntosh says, “I’ve been an avid Yankees fan since I was thirteen, so forty-four years. I haven’t missed a game this season.”
Sue Burke https://sueburke.site is a fan of the Green Bay Packers. “I was born in Wisconsin, and the fine print on my birth certificate says I must not only be a loyal fan all my life, I must, whenever the occasion arises, declare: ‘Da Bears suck!’ I live in Chicago now. It’s become a test of courage.”
Michael Cassutt https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Cassutt says, “Not only am I a lifelong sports fan—Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings—but I grew up in that world. My father was a professional baseball player in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. I was a fair baseball player, a star sprinter in track, and a decent golfer.”
Dale Bailey https://dalebailey.com “is a West Virginia Mountaineer football fan, as every right-thinking person is.”
Andy Duncan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Duncan_(writer): Andy and his wife Sydney are fans of the Atlanta Braves. “I also get enthused about the Summer Olympics whenever they roll around—less so the Winter, because I was so not raised around winter sports—and I also enthuse over the USA Women’s World Cup teams.”
Gregory Benford http://www.gregorybenford.com: “Where I come from, PLAYING is the thing and I’ve been on teams of tennis, soccer, football, softball, squash. Watch none of them now, preferring hiking in the Sierras. Don’t be passive!”
Sarah Pinsker https://sarahpinsker.com says, “I’m a huge rugby fan. My teams are the South African national team (the Springboks) and The Bulls (one of the South African regional teams). While I married into this obsession, I fully own it. I have team shirts and have been to see them play, though geography doesn’t allow for it often. I’m also a huge fan of the US women’s soccer team, and if the DC team played just slightly closer to Baltimore I’d get season tickets.”
John Kessel https://johnjosephkessel.wixsite.com/kessel-website is a long suffering fan of the Buffalo Bills, who after a record-setting four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl (1990-93) have for decades suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. John is my best friend, and I sometimes wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that I share a name with the star of his team’s glory years. “You know my sad story, Jim Kelly,” John writes, “not that Jim Kelly, I mean the other Jim Kelly.”
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So yes, sf writers (and readers) are consumers like so many others in the sports economy—which is ginormous, by the way. According to a 2017 creditcard. com study https://www.marketwatch.com/story/heres-how-much-americans-spend-on-sports-in-one-chart-2017-09-11, Americans spend over one hundred billion dollars on sports every year. Actually, this estimate seriously understates the overall spending on sports, in my opinion. But if that’s the case, and if so many writers and readers are sports fans, why isn’t there more sports SF?
I’m not claiming there isn’t any, just that there is less than one might expect. Consider the number of general sports SF anthologies. After some serious google searching I’ve found just two, neither recent. The 1976 classic Arena: Sports SF, edited by Barry Malzberg and Ed Ferman, is long out of print, and Future Sports, from 2002, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, is available in digital only. Maybe there’s an opportunity here for a sports-minded editor to bring us up to date?
Certain specific sports do better than others in genre as evidenced by the 2014 baseball anthology Field of Fantasy https://www.amazon.com/Field-Fantasies-Baseball-Stories-Supernatural/dp/1597805483, edited by Rick Wilber, and Stephen H. Silver’s https://www.sfsite.com/~silverag/ superb Baseball in Science Fiction https://www.sfsite.com/~silverag/baseball.html. However, there is no analogous site for soccer, basketball, or football. But, there is the amazing What Football Will Look Like in the Future https://www.sbnation.com/a/17776-football. Also known as 17776, this multimedia narrative created by Jon Bois https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Bois is what the internet was invented for. Warning: this addictive site will easily eat an hour of your life, then an afternoon, then a weekend!
I do have a theory about why there isn’t more sports SF—actually two theories. The first is that it’s really hard to invent a new sport and then explain not only its rules but its strategies on the page, while still portraying the passion of the participants and fans. This is more easily accomplished on the screen, as you can see from The Sci-Fi Movies That Predicted the Modern Sports Apocalypse https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/jpz3vy/the-sci-fi-movies-that-predicted-the-modern-sports-apocalypse. Although if truth be told, most of these movies “cheat” to maintain viewer interest by drastically raising the stakes on the outcome of a contest. Consider titles like The 10th Victim https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_10th_Victim or Death Race 2000 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Race_2000 or The Running Man https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Running_Man_(1987_film) and you’ll see what I mean. You could make a thriller out of a game of Tic Tac Toe if the loser faced decapitation. My other theory is that traditional sports do not easily lend themselves to SF extrapolation. Jetpacks on point guards in basketball? Armored tackles in football? Soccer in microgravity? Speaking for myself only, I prefer to keep my favorite sports the way they are. I’ve written sports into science fiction stories, but they always are played the way we play them today.
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For the record, I avidly follow the New England Patriots and the Boston Celtics through thick and thin. I’m a skier—cross country and downhill—and a jogger. And there’s a basketball hoop hanging off my garage that gets regular use.
Nerd? Geek? Occasional dork? Guilty as charged, your honor.
But go, Celts!
Copyright © 2020 James Patrick Kelly