Please enjoy this encore post on tribal nerdery, originally published October 2016.
Sometimes I wonder what color my vomit will be when someone tries to hold up Revenge of the Nerds as an important cultural piece of pop culture history.
That might sound crude, of course, but in my defense I didn’t specify what would cause the bodily ejection. I’ve just been at New York Comic Con, see, where I’ve been alternately drinking heavily and meandering through a crowd where we are all breathing heavily on each other and generally absorbed in the miasma of color and sound that is our beautiful pop culture landscape.
And it’s kind of hard to imagine going back to an era where nerds were persecuted.
Not that it’s hard to remember that time, of course. It was still in my lifetime where playing Pokemon in fifth grade was cool and playing Pokemon in sixth grade meant your social life was over. And it wasn’t that long ago that my friends and I gathered together to discuss what our cover story would be for this weekend so we wouldn’t have to admit to people that we were getting together to try to figure out how to play Dungeons and Dragons.
What’s interesting is that, despite our own tribal nerdery, we would never think of getting together with Pokemon nerds and seeing if we could find some common ground. Just as we would never consider going to book nerds and inviting them to play. We were dorks, of course, but a certain kind of dork: a salvageable, misunderstood lot of noble heroes who would one day find our place above everyone else.
Tribalism isn’t too uncommon for nerds. It’s our interests that defined us as nerds and our reluctance to share those interests that compounded those interests, which is a solid formula for creating a clandestine gathering banded together for survival and mistrustful of outsiders.
Things are getting better, of course. Superheroes rule the movie theaters, fantasy stories dominate the small screen, you’re a weirdo if you don’t know what’s happening in Game of Thrones. But we’ve still got our tribalist aspects. Twitter explodes near daily over who is doing superheroes wrong. Hell, most of our genre awards are equal parts recognition of talent within the industry and bloodsport power struggle between factions of who deserves to control the future of spaceship laser pixie stories.
As an aside, NYCC was the first time I got to hold a physical copy of my newest book, Shy Knives.
Shy Knives, if you didn’t know, is the story of a surly rogue reluctantly forced into the role of a detective uncovering the truth behind a grisly murder, a burgeoning centaur political entity and a scheme involving otherworldly eugenics. It’s also set in the universe of Pathfinder, a tabletop-RPG setting.
I’ve gone over why I chose to write a tie-in fiction piece before. If you missed that blog post, it basically boils down to two reasons: I think it’s super fun to write in a world where gorillas can hold political office and also I view this as an essential, perhaps inevitable step, out of nerd tribalism.
It’s not exactly as prevalent these days, but there was (and probably still is) some reluctance to engage tie-in fiction, despite its wild popularity, as a serious medium. People argue it’s not as genuine as other fantasy fiction, it’s not original, it’s not serious, etc. It’s wizards, monsters, swords, but not the right kind of wizards, monsters, swords.
That’s not to say that all wizards, monsters, swords books must be alike. But rather that we can’t really genuinely devalue one book for the same reason we value another. Nor does it make a lot of sense to carve our common ground into two different tribes.
I view nerd culture (or pop culture, if that’s less offensive) as moving toward a platform-agnostic culture. To some extent, we’re already there. Readers of novels are also likely to love comics. Players of tabletop RPGs are also likely to love video games. Books create movies. Movies create games. Games inspire books. The circle of life, Simba, is fraught with a lot of dorky stuff.
And as our interests open up to each other, so too do our art forms. We begin to see inspirations and choices informed from vastly different media and see the best parts of them applied to areas that are traditionally weak.
We haven’t yet reached it, but I would like to see a point where, when asked what influenced an author in the creation of their book, we don’t see the same rearranged list of Tolkien, Martin, etc. (fine authors though they are). I would love to see authors cop to how Dragon Age informed their decisions. I would love to see authors talk about what films influenced their books.
It’s encouraging that we’re moving toward a place where RPGs can be acknowledged as influences alongside literary greats. But for a few, it’s still a subject of reservation and maybe even apprehension.
Shy Knives probably isn’t going to change that completely. I certainly didn’t write it for that purpose or any other purpose other than the fact that writing surly women stabbing monsters is kind of my jam. But it’s a step forward. It’s some contribution to a changing face of tribalism.
Also, it has horse people.
Sam Sykes is the author of the Aeons’ Gate trilogy for Pyr, Pathfinder Tales: Shy Knives from Tor Books and Paizo Publishing, and the Bring Down Heaven series for Orbit. He’s a popular humorous online personality with a dedicated fanbase. Follow him on Twitter @SamSykesSwears.