Geek It Happened to Me

Scenes from a sci-fi convention 2: "Who let the mundane in?"

On Friday night, after helping Eric Raymond score some peanut butter cookies, a guy who looked sort of familiar approached me.

“Hey Joey, when’d you take up the accordion?”

I looked at him a little more closely, trying to figure out who this guy was. There was something familiar about the eyes…

“It’s me, Tyler!

I assumed he was Tyler from praytothemachine, but this Tyler said “I was at Mackerel.”

Mackerel was the first company I worked for after graduating from Crazy Go Nuts University. I realized who he was.

“Tyler Battle,” I said. “It’s been so long — I didn’t recognize you!”

When I last saw Tyler, about eight years ago, he was a high school student with an impressive collection of CodeWarrior T-shirts. He was sort of an intern at Mackerel. The company had a knack for taking on interns but then having no idea what to do with them. Being a responsible Chief Programmer, I took anyone with an interest in programming under my wing, because I didn’t want to see them wasting their time sitting in front of a computer with nothing to do.

“Hey,” said Tyler after a swig of Amsterdam Nut Brown Ale, “thanks for teaching me about arrays. It was useful.”

“No prob. You in programming now?”

“Yup. In fact, I go to Queen’s.” Ah, my alma mater, which I often refer to as “Crazy Go Nuts University”. It’s not just a name I lifted from Strong Bad’s Email at, it’s an apt description.

“Cool. Why’d you pick Queen’s?”

“For many reasons, including this,” he said, holding up the beer bottle.

(Queen’s is part of Canada’s ivy league, and in addition to snob value and academic excellence, it also has a reputation for being one of Canada’s biggest party schools. I enjoyed a rather extended stay at Crazy Go Nuts University.)

A guy walked up and asked me if I was the Accordion Guy.

“Yes. My name’s Joey,” I replied.

“I’m Phoenix,” he said, “and my girlfriend Deb was looking forward to meeting you, and she’s just left. Could you stay here — I think I can catch her.”

“Sure,” I said.

He ran off, and five minutes later returned with Deb, who along with Phoenix, ended up being my tour guides for the rest of the evening. Knowing that this was my first science fiction convention ever (which some of you will find very surprising), they were kind enough to explain just about everything — the differences between the various conventions, all sorts of acronyms and jargon that were unique to sci-fi cons, and the process by which a city gets selected for the World Science Fiction Convention.

At some point, we ended up in a small room where a guy was serving Purple Jesus and had a drink. A woman had just finished feeding her baby, and the cute little tyke was staring at all of us from her cradle with wide-awake eyes. Someone suggested that I play the kid a song, and I obliged with The Hokey Pokey.

At the end of the song, a guy sitting on a nearby couch wearing a police uniform from Demolition Man sat with his arm around a girl wearing a blue Starfleet uniform (blue is what science and medical officers wear, by the bye) from the 2366-2373 era of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

“Who let the mundane in?” he asked her, gesturing towards me with a motion of his head. I don’t think he meant me to hear it, but he was either drunk or perhaps one of those people who hadn’t mastered the difference between “inside voice” and “outside voice”.

Those of you who watched Babylon 5 will recognize the word “mundane” — it’s the derogatory term used by humans with psi-powers to refer to those who did not have the gift. However, the origin of the term goes farther back; all to way back to 1940, in A. E. Van Vogt’s book, Slan.

In Slan, Van Vogt created a literary archetype that lives on in various forms, from Revenge of the Nerds to the X-Men. Slans are a race of enhanced humans who have the gifts of greater intelligence and telepathy, who are feared and hated by “normal” humans for their superiority. While the book is your standard run-of-the-mill “Golden Age” sort of sci-fi, it resonated very will with science fiction fans, and no wonder: being smarter, very interested in things that other people don’t understand and shunned for those reasons, fans saw themselves in the slans. Hence the old sci-fi battle cry “Fans are slans!”

Just as black people have their fighting-back derogatory terms for white people (“ofay”, “honky” and “cracker”) and gays and lesbians have a similar sort of term for straight people (“breeder”), the slans had the term “mundane” for the “normal” humans. Fans, being slans, adopted the term for those who didn’t read or quite “get” science fiction.

I was wearing a dressy short-sleeve shirt, black tapered dress pants, kenneth Cole boots, gelled hair and cologne. Maybe I hadn’t adapted the proper speech patterns and kinesics for the venue (yes, the eye contact rules and speech patterns are different — which is why outsiders to fandom often cocktail-party-psycholoogy-diagnose them as “autistic” — you’re supposed to make as many parenthetical asides as possible, there’s a helluva lot more hand-waving, and changing your voice when mimic something else or making a point and making sound effects is strongly encouraged). I’d come in from catching up with some friends at a dance club. I had enough of the stink of mundane all over me to cause a disturbance in The Force, apparently.

At one point I jokingly remarked to Deb that “furries scared me,” using that quiet voice some people use when they admit that clowns frighten them.

“They’re good people,” said Deb, laughing.

“I keed, I keed,” I replied, using my Triumph the Insult Comic Dog voice.

“Furries scare him,” said my critic with a derisive snicker into the girl’s ear, still using the “outside voice”. Memo to girl: get your left ear checked for sound-pressure level damage on Tuesday.

The guy at the bar asked for a classic rock number and I obliged him with Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild. The chorus is at the upper end of my vocal range, and if I don’t get a good breath in before certain notes, I fail to hit them. I almost missed one of those notes, but I got great applause and hanshakes from everyone in the room. Everyone, that is except for my newfound critic.

“I don’t know what’s worse,” he said into the girl’s ear “the accordion or his singing.”

Good thing I was in a jovial mood — hey, i usually am — otherwise I’d have introduced him to the works of Ike Turner. Not his music, but his bitch-slapping.

I let it go without confronting him or using a good comeback. It wasn’t worth it, and it seemed to be not so much any malice toward me than an attempt to impress the girl and seem clever-clever with witty put-downs (or a close approximation thereof). Mostly harmless dick-waving.

But really, a fan dissing an accordion player? That’s hot pot-on-kettle action, dont you think?

Next: The view from the mundane side, or: Enter the bridal party.

Recommended Reading

The Geek Hierarchy. There’s the abridged version and the “big massive GIF” unabridged version. Lucky Cory, at the top of the hierarchy, with the power to point to a fan and say “This one amuses me. Have a rug made out of him.” Poor furries, at the bottom of the pecking order in both versions.

Vanity Fair’s March 2001 article on furries. Includes a great photo of Katharine Gates, sex therapist and author of Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex, posing with an open shirt, but tastefully covered with a plush alsatian and a handgun. May or may not be safe for work, depending on your office environment. Well, I think she’s cute.

Transcript of the MTV Sex2K segment on furries. Unfortunately this transcript is in ALL CAPS.

A heavily-linked to essay called What is Fandom?

Not quite fandom, and more a portrait of Eric S. Raymond and his circle of friends, the Portrait of J. Random Hacker gives a glimpse into geekdom, whose Venn Diagram circle has some considerable overlap with fandom.

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