Nerds

A lot of scientists hate the TV show The Big Bang Theory, about a bunch of Caltech physicists who love comic books, video games, etc. One character is clearly meant to be “on the spectrum.” I like the show. Are the characters stereotypes? Sure. But I have met a lot of people with the same characteristics among real scientists. The show also has Jewish stereotypes, Midwestern stereotypes, South Asian stereotypes, athlete stereotypes, Texan stereotypes, to name a few. Stereotypes are useful narrative and thematic hooks, the trick is to not take them too seriously. And judging from sci-fi and video games, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this: nerds are obviously totally cool with stereotypes, just apparently not about them. I don’t think the show is mean spirited, as some have claimed. The audience empathizes with the characters or the show wouldn’t work as mass entertainment (empathy failure is the reason the best sitcom ever, the stereotype-filled Arrested Development, was canceled). Basically, I think that many nerds are thin-skinned and unable to laugh at themselves.

I have a complex relationship with nerd-dom. I liked the idea of D&D a lot but found the execution mind-numbingly lame. We would just have sword fights with scrap lumber until someone bled. I read a fair amount of sci-fi when I was kid, but not to the exclusion of other books. I liked the stories and ideas in Asimov’s books, but even as a teenager found his characters unbearable and could tell that he couldn’t write for peanuts. I’ve almost always hated fantasy because it’s so unhinged: there is no tension or interest if there are no constraints on what can happen.

I was an English major with a music minor until my 3rd year of college, and dabbled in several nerd subcultures that I did not fully identify with. Literature nerds who got wasted and shouted Hopkins from memory; philosophy nerds, who took acid and lay in tide pools; radio station nerds, who obsessed over every release and the station’s decades of vinyl (I always think college radio must be so fucking boring now that everyone just plays their own mp3s). Any literature nerds reading this probably caught the Martin Amis reference a while back – that’s the kind of insufferable shit lit nerds are into, fyi.

Anyway, back to the show. I like it because most shows treat academics or scientists as stuffy and insufferable. In movies, scientists are almost always evil. The characters on the show are actually pretty normal people, and I think their self-awareness as obsessive geeks about certain things is something nerd culture – any nerd culture – could probably take to heart a little.

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10 Comments on “Nerds”

  1. jbashir says:

    BBT is aight. Eureka is much better, IMO. Has some pretty high density nerdery. Psych is great too, that’s more pop culture nerdery though.

    Literature types are totally insufferable!
    I just wanted to say that. 😛

  2. rxnm says:

    I thought Eureka was a little cute, but I’ve only seen it once or twice. Next Generation is I think my favorite sci-fi TV show. Loved the new BSG, too, until the unforgivable ending.

    I haven’t read much sci-fi for years, but I just started reading some Kim Stanley Robinson and China Mieville (does that count?) and have really liked both.

    Full disclosure: I have passionately hated every single thing I have ever seen that involved Joss Whedon.

  3. jbashir says:

    It’s ok to hate Joss. He has a love or hate style. I liked Firefly but none of his other stuff. Buffy eludes me for some reason.

    Eureka is more cutesy in the first season or so. Initially I was kind of meh about it. Eventually it finds a better balance and is pretty solid IMO. Wouldn’t say it’s easy to get into. Very self-referential.

    I am reading Kraken right now.

    BSG had an ending? I’m not aware of anything past the 3rd season. 🙂

  4. rxnm says:

    I did a Mieville binge this summer… Kraken, Railsea, City and the City, and Embassytown. Embassytown is definitely the most sci-fi and was really good, though a bit strained at times to force linguistics and semiotics to function as plot devices. City and the City was the best. Kraken was cool stylistically but a little into the unhinged-from-coherent-rules category for me. Gotta love Goss & Subby, though.

  5. neuroecology says:

    The biggest problem with big bang theory is that it’s so corny and the jokes are bad…

    I find that it’s easier to find good sci-fi in anime, and it can even tend in an artsier direction than you’d normally see in US tv shows. As long as you’re willing to put up with some of the anime conventions, that is.

  6. rxnm says:

    Sure…I’m definitely willing to have a discussion on the writing quality and some of the more irritating Three’s Company-style sitcom tropes it tends to use. But I have been noticing a lot of anger about scientist stereotypes and a supposed mean-spiritedness about the characters that to me are either beside the point (in the context of a sitcom) or just weirdly defensive and humorless. Compared to any other mass market entertainment, these are the most human scientists I’ve ever seen.

    I am completely oblivious to the world of anime, though there is something about a flying castle that has been recommended to me. “Flying castle” as a concept is off to exactly the wrong start in terms of piquing my interest. I’d love some recommendations to try, though.

  7. neuroecology says:

    Well there’s the anime that I remember loving in college (warning! It could be terrible!): Evangelion is the classic, Serial Experiment Lain is…very strange, and FLCL is pretty funny. I think those are anime at their best. Other classics are Ghost In The Shell and Cowboy Bebop. I guess I don’t have any sense of what type of things you like to watch (psychological? experimental? adventure?), so maybe try some of these if you’re bored and looking for something to watch.

  8. jbashir says:

    Cowboy Bebop and FLCL (furikuri). My two favs. Cowboy Bebop is more conventional, FLCL is just all over the place.

  9. About sci-fi/fantasy, like you said you enjoyed Mieville, and his works are all fantasy. Most modern fantasy writers do have certain rules, and it’s not full of deus ex machinas. As for sci-fi, I think the reason most people are put off by it is because the likes of Asimov and Clarke are what most newbies are encouraged to get into, when they would be better off reading Ray Bradbury, Brain Aldiss or Iain M. Banks.

    Also not as many nerds aren’t as thin skinned as you say (though anime nerds in particular can get a bit defensive). Maybe science nerds, but most comic/D&D/sci-fi nerds I know are completely self-aware. Not to mention the fact that a lot of nerds do actually enjoy Big Bang Theory (I personally don’t, but that’s mainly because I’m not a big fan of American sitcoms to begin with).

  10. rxnm says:

    Not all Mieville is fantasy… I think he’s kind of like Le Guin, does both and in between. I definitely liked his more scifi stuff (Embassytown is def scifi, City and the City is kind of social allegory / police procedural) way more than e.g. Kraken. I did like Railsea, but it’s basically a kids book (and totally failed at the end with the completely unnecessary and stupid backstory). I also like Le Guin in scifi mode (Left Hand of Darkness) more than in Earthsea.

    All agreed in your 2nd para. I was reacting to a bunch of stuff I happened to read of people who found BBT insulting or something.


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