I have read more of Ryan Britt’s writing than any other person on this planet. This makes me the most qualified person—ever—to review Ryan’s first book, a collection of essays titled Luke Skywalker Can’t Read.
I believe that Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell once summarized the former Tor.com staff writer as “an uncontrolled experiment”—perhaps during a speech at the U.N. I don’t know—so it is with this in mind that you must confront Ryan and whatever lizard-person theory he is writing about this week. Be on guard, but also, be accepting of the spaghetti pile of ideas that he brings to you. The plating is unorthodox but the meal is supremely tasty. (He put cheese in it.)
I personally spent 57 years here at Tor.com editing Ryan’s essays, listening to his daily pitches, and sharing a small office with him. This often meant listening to him explain how director and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer is responsible for the creation of all science fiction, or how Joss Whedon actually just uses the same 5 lines of dialogue in all of his projects and no one’s ever noticed, or how I should photoshop Data-as-Sherlock-Holmes into the BBC’s Sherlock promo art. What I’m trying to get at here is that Ryan is dyspeptically annoying. He makes your hair fall out. He makes you want to go to war.
I think this is what readers will initially feel as they first read Ryan’s memoir/essay collection/fan theory book, and the collection starts off by immediately addressing this perception. “This book isn’t meant to be the final word on anything” goes the Author’s Note, before diving into the first essay “Out of the Sideshows,” which looks at the emergence of geek culture into the mainstream. He recalls his years in junior high and the nigh-stereotypical stigmatization that came with being a geek. “If there’s a club where everyone agrees on being normal together, I wasn’t in it,” Ryan says. While he’s recalling his years in junior high, he’s also commenting on the discourse within present day geek culture and how that discourse is changing as geek culture becomes—and stays, judging by the fact that we’re in Year 8 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Year 6 of Game of Thrones—mainstream pop culture. Certain ideas enjoy widespread acceptance in geek culture: Wolverine is cool, Han shot first, Harry Potter is the one who kills around here… To challenge, or even play with, this sort of gospel invites annoyance.
Ryan does this effortlessly. I don’t think he knows how not to, honestly, even though he admits in his essay “I Know It’s Only Science Fiction, But I Like It” that he didn’t always feel the need to challenge his fellow geeks. His essays for Tor.com, however, are always based in this need to play with geek gospel; to hold it up to a different lens. So during his time in the office here, whenever he would pitch a robot-related or Prince Xizor-based essay idea I would encourage him to explore that idea with one caveat: He should anticipate the criticism his idea would receive and try and find evidence to address that criticism—that plot hole really—in his essay. That way a reader wouldn’t stop reading an essay to nitpick and would instead absorb the entire perspective that Ryan was putting forth.
The beginning of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read concerns this “anticipation of argument” that both he and I perceive in geek discourse. And it’s a really enjoyable read, not just because Ryan is funny, but because he doesn’t insist on looking at geek discourse in solely binary terms. Luke Skywalker Can’t Read, even though it argues that Luke Skywalker can’t read, doesn’t insist that there is an outright incorrect or correct way to talk about the pop culture that we love. He anticipates potential arguments, yes, not in order to shut them down, but to make his perception clearer.
As readers, he argues, our relationship with pop culture and geek icons goes deeper than right-and-wrong. These are stories and characters that we defend through argument because they impart a sense of fun more potent than anything else. In the memoir portions of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read, Ryan traces the origins of his own love of geeky stuff from his childhood, through adolescence, into his teenage and college years, and into adulthood. Ryan’s love changes as he does: It expands, it calcifies, it gets analytical, it softens, it gets drunk enough to allow me to pick him up one night at Professor Thom’s… In short, Ryan ends up discovering how he learned to love what he loves. Just why is he so enamored by Bram Stoker’s version of Dracula? Or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s version of Sherlock Holmes? Is he just putting on intellectual airs? (Sometimes, he admits.) Or is there something else?
Usually, there’s something else. For a long time I was afraid to read my review copy of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read, because I knew that once I did, my mental image of Ryan Britt as my friend would change. In my own life, exploring why I love what I love has ultimately meant exploring my sense of self. This same journey plays out for Ryan all throughout Luke Skywalker Can’t Read. His sense of fun, his overwhelming curiosity, not only reveals new ways of considering Star Wars, Sherlock, or Back to the Future, but also Ryan himself.
And that’s the point, Ryan argues. It’s no fun to just parrot what everyone else is saying. Go deep. Find what makes Firefly or The Lord of the Rings or Torchwood: Miracle Day fun (or not fun) for YOU. Then tell your friends, because hey, maybe it’ll be fun for them, too.
This is something that Ryan had to teach me, in person, when we first started working together all those centuries ago. I had to learn to stop rolling my eyes at his latest theory and just listen; have faith that his love for something like, say, Star Wars, was just as deep and legitimate as mine. I’m glad I did. Not only did I gain one hell of an uncontrolled experiment for a friend (and a Ric Olie action figure) I learned to have way more fun with the pop culture that I love. And while I can’t promise that this will happen to you, I promise that it will happen to you.
So go buy Ryan’s book! He’s fun.
Chris Lough writes for Tor.com and will ski on your lunch if he wants, Ryan.