Ever watch westerns? I know, a bit of a departure from science fiction at first glance, but not really, as many authors, critics, and fans have, for years, pointed out how SF borrows from the cowboy genre not infrequently. But sometimes, scenarios from westerns can go beyond SF on the page or screen, and enter into the realm of fandom.
I'm talking about the showdown. The gunfight at high noon, where two individuals draw and see who's standing at the end. Sometimes it's the person who draws quickest, getting that first, fatal shot off. Sometimes, it's the guy who's a split second slower, but only because experience has taught him to take his time and make sure the shot counts. Sometimes these face-offs come as a result of a vendetta, or maybe a reckoning for justice. But sometimes, just sometimes, it's a senseless shootout that happens for no other reason than one party's looking to show off - maybe it's the new, young guy - looking to make it known that he's the new top dog.
I found myself in that situation a couple of days ago. Not a full-on, cigar-chompin', whip-lean-and-narrow-eyed-stranger, tumbleweeds rollin' in the dust as the six-shooters spin kinda way, but in a far more bespectacled, somewhat overweight, bookish and nerdy kinda way - that none-the-less turned every bit as deadly serious, and was every bit as wasteful and pointless.
Our story takes place on a late afternoon, the harsh glare of banks of fluorescents lashing down on two weary travelers just looking to take it easy... My wife and I had gone to our local Chapters mega bookstore after work looking to pick up a couple of travel guides (yep, researching for next year's Loncon3 already), and afterwards had started browsing in the SF section, eventually wandering over to the graphic novel aisle. I was casually looking to see if anything caught my eye, while my wife was digging for book 1 of The Walking Dead (having just started watching the series - without me, might I add, 'cause zombies aren't my thing). That's when the stranger wandered into the aisle.
The kid was one of the store's staff, doing a customary check to see if the customers needed any help, and we struck up a conversation. Nice guy; turns out he's an SF fan who's new in town. We started talking about the local SF scene, books, university and post-university life, and comics. After a while, I remarked that it was nice to run into a fellow fan in the store, since most clerks have a knowledge of the genre that's about as low as their desire to help customers.
That's when things got serious. That's when the kid decided, out of the blue, to throw down the gauntlet and unnecessarily try to assert some nerdy dominance.
"I'm probably a bigger fan than you are, though," he says.
Since when did this become a contest? I wonder, as I cock an eyebrow and chuckle quietly.
My wife laughs openly. "No," she says with a smile, pointing at me. "He is."
"No," says the kid, a cocky gleam in his eye and gloating, confident smile on his lips. "I'm pretty sure I am." like maybe he thinks that because my wife has asked his opinion on whether to buy the individual book 1 of the series or the entire collection omnibus that maybe we're latecomers who are new to the SF party.
My wife looks over at me, her smile vanishing, and I flash back to that old episode of Cheers where Sam gets into the phone number contest with the new young buck in the bar who thinks he's the ultimate ladies' man. "Aw, Sammy," says Carla, "Go easy on him. He's just a kid. He didn't know any better!" Sam's face is quiet, calm, almost expressionless. "Then maybe it's time he became a man," he says.
"I just bought two tickets to the 2014 Worldcon in London the other day," I say with a half smile and a level gaze. "How about you? Are you coming? It'll be my third Worldcon."
The kid's eyes pop out of their sockets and roll around on the worn carpet somewhere near where his jaw has hit. Metaphorical tumbleweeds roll past in the background and the town undertaker comes out to take measurements for the coffin.
I smile and we resume chatting amicably about authors, etc.
The point is that it was just weird that out of the blue, as we were establishing a brief geeky conversational relationship, this kid felt the need to try to brag that he was the bigger fan.
Bragging in-and-of itself is not unusual in nerdy communities. There are plenty of fans who, given a chance, will gush about the depths of their love for a particular sub-genre, or author, or movie, or vintage tapes of Gilligan's Planet, or what-have-you. And, in some geeky group settings (not all), the degree of one's knowledge on a subject is a mark of status or political capital - I've seen onlookers nod sagely with deep respect as one of their gang lectures the rest about the most minute details of, say, implements in a medieval cook's kitchen.
And that's okay. Because, at the end of the day, while these folks are showing off, and relishing in, their knowledge of the object of their nerdy affections, it's a non-comparative, or, at the very least, a non-confrontational exercise. They're not hanging pork to see who's got the bigger love of Manos, the Hands of Fate. In most cases, it's enough for nerds just to relish in the company of like-minded individuals.
There's another element at work in these interactions too: at some level, there's usually an understanding that you just don't know how well-versed a strange nerd is until you've chatted with them for a long time. And while age isn't necessarily indicative of knowledge, in the fan community, it's usually a safe bet that the older a person is, the more likely they are to have seen more, read more, and done more. I'd never walk into a book or comic store, strike up a conversation with an older fan, and presume that I know more about, say, Tolkien than she does. Perhaps I do, but there's a good chance that I don't, and to deliberately get into that kind of contest would just make me look like a jackass.
So why did I thump this kid? Was it to brag and make myself feel like a big man - reaffirm my status as the alpha dog in that setting? Not at all. I'm pretty secure in my degree of fandom, and I'm also more than willing to admit that as much as I've read or seen, and as many cons (large or small) that I've been to, there are plenty of other fans out there who've done so much more as to make my experience pretty insignificant. And that's cool. My intent was to teach the kid a friendly - if firm - lesson about fan etiquette. That little surprise of realizing he was wrong to issue the challenge hopefully will help him grow up a little. Even if he only refrains from this behaviour in the future because he's afraid of finding himself in over his head again, that's a start. After all, aside from that fumble, he was basically a nice kid. Eventually, if not already, he'll probably figure out that you don't have to posture in front of other fans. Better to save time and energy just enjoying the SF discourse for what it is.
Kids these days!