Geek Heroes

I finished Emma Holly’s Strange Attractions over the weekend, and woo boy, what a fun book. Holly writes some friggin’ HOT man on man action, y’all. A few things bothered me about it, though, most of which I’ll cover in tiresome detail (as usual) in my review. But one thing jumped out at me as being especially irksome, and it’s a problem I’ve observed in many other romance novels, so I think it deserves its own not-so-little rant. I’m talking about geek heroes.

I’m a geek connoisseur. I’m a minor-league geek, almost all the boys I’ve dated have been geeks, I married a geek (a boy so geeky that I had the privilege of de-flowering him when we first started dating four years ago), and many, many of my friends are geeks—two of my best friends have PhDs, one in chemistry and the other in physics, and I have more than my fair share of friends who have Master’s degrees in engineering. OK, I only have two friends with advanced engineering degrees—but trust me, two definitely qualifies as “more than my fair share.” I have a bona fide statistician as a friend—a statistician who enjoys bird-watching and science fiction. My friends, it does not get much geekier than that.

So when I say I know geeks, I KNOW GEEKS. I know and appreciate the many different flavors and varieties of them: the hardcore science geeks, the geeks who like to dabble in the shallow end of freaky physics and cosmology but can’t be bothered with the freaky math (*raises hand*), the rainbow varieties of computer geeks, literature geeks, music geeks, movie geeks. These are, of course, hardly mutually exclusive categories: it’s extremely uncommon to find a geek who’s solely into, say, research on irrational numbers and nothing else. Geeks, because they’re smarter than the average bear, tend to have varied interests about which they are usually extremely knowledgeable. Geeks tend not to have hobbies so much as obsessions. But despite this wonderful variety of geekery to draw from, not a single damn romance novel has gotten a geek hero right. This is how most romance novels handle the characterization:

1. Make them sound like Spock after a lobotomy. The more painful and stilted their conversation, the more intelligent they must be, right?

2. They are always, always, always science geeks. Give them an especially esoteric area of interest the average romance novel reader probably won’t know too much about so if the hero’s area of research becomes a plot point, you can fudge outrageously. Quantum mechanics and bioengineering are two extremely rigorous fields that have unfortunately been bombarded by more than their fair share of mass media oversimplification and pseudoscientific kookishness, leading to widespread misconceptions about what’s possible and not possible, so go ahead and misrepresent quantum non-locality or gene therapy and have a friggin’ field day.

3. Despite their geekiness, social awkwardness and general isolation (romance novel geeks resemble people with Asperger’s syndrome more than anything else), these heroes have super-duper lovemaking powers. Is the ability to cause an orgasm merely by waggling their fingers in the general direction of the heroine’s clitty a geek hero trait? Oh yes. In fact: Yes! Yes! YESSSSSS!

Peeve Number 1 is probably what bugs me the most. The reason why I’m so overwhelmingly attracted (romantically and otherwise) to people of Very Big Brain is because they’re such excellent conversationalists. The talk can switch from riffing over the A-Team to the situation in Sudan (which will of course bring up inevitable comparisons with Rwanda) to how photons have momentum even though they don’t have mass to why you think anchovy ice-cream is so very, very wrong, even if it was made by Iron Chef Chinese, to whom you would give your first-born child if you actually had any kids, and isn’t that Rosanjin scholar just the whiniest little bitch of a judge, ever? Geeks are articulate, geeks are quick-witted, and best of all, geeks are FUNNY—or at least the sexy ones are. So why oh why do so many authors take the lazy route and make their geek heroes sound about as lively as those computerized messages you get from the library? Seriously, I often expect the geek hero to start saying things like “Please pick up your books at the CENTRAL… LIBRARY… before APRIL… FOURTEENTH… TWO THOUSAND AND… FIVE.” Except that would be an IMPROVEMENT on the average geek hero’s dialogue.

So if you’re a romance novel author contemplating creating a geek hero, please, please, PLEASE have your geek heroes talk normally. In fact, make their conversation zippy. If you HAVE to show how extra-super-duper-king-sized-smart they are, then sure, throw in some stupid puns involving gluons or whatever, but in my experience, real-life geeks are more likely to make dirty jokes than jokes involving exotic sub-atomic particles. Just keep this in mind: your geek should be capable of creating HAL, but he shouldn’t at any point sound like HAL—unless he’s re-enacting 2001: A Space Odyssey for some reason.

The first bit of Peeve Number 2 isn’t really too much of a peeve, because it IS romantic fiction, and theoretical physics research is a sexier occupation than civil engineering or IT, though all these are honorable geek professions. But for the love of God, GET THE SCIENCE RIGHT. I’m not asking for equations or details, I’m talking getting the most basic of basics correct. Don’t have your geek hero assuming that the magnitude of uncertainty as put forward by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle remains the same for large bodies as well as sub-atomic particles. If you have a smart science-oriented high school kid handy, have her proof-read the rivetty bits. If she spots errors, it’s a pretty good sign you should do a lot more research. You don’t expect a romance novel set in fourteenth-century England to refer to Thomas Jefferson, right? I mean, that kind of an egregious error merits a thorough beating about the head and shoulders with a history textbook, doesn’t it? So why be sloppy with the science research?

And as for Peeve Number 3: Geeks are often geeks because at some point they were unattractive and/or unpopular, and the mindset has spilled over into their adult lives. This unpopularity oftentimes is due to the person not being able to look right or care about the same things other kids care about, and not necessarily due to a lack of social skills. Yes, there are geeks who live up to every awful stereotype: they’re physically unattractive in every way you can think of (too fat/too skinny/too pimply/bad teeth/bad hair/partially-resorpted fetal twin dangling from their forehead), they snort when they laugh, they’re completely clueless on how to behave themselves in any given social situation, they’re genuinely uncomfortable people to be around—but are we really trying to portray these kinds of geeks as the geek hero? I mean, WHY?

So given that many of the stereotypes of the completely socially inept geek are not necessarily true, one thing does tend to be true: geeks as a group tend to have less sexual experience, or at least start their sexual experiences later, compared to the general population. Sexually inexperienced heroes may turn off some people, but personally, I think they’re adorable. Actually, it’s almost a fetish for me. Part of the reason why I like Wild at Heart and The Shadow and The Star so much is because the heroes have never been with a woman, and witnessing the fumbling is both sexy and very, very emotionally-charged. Why so many romance authors include all the inaccurate and unattractive personality stereotypes while overcompensating them in the bedroom is beyond me. One can learn to give good head; learning to be an engaging conversationalist is also possible, but a LOT harder. Guess which skill I’d much rather teach a guy and which skill I’d much rather have a guy know already. Hell, guess which skill attracts me to a guy in the first place, and the one that will keep the relationship going years and years later when all the fun bits are no longer firm and pert and cellulite has made inroads in areas you never though possible.

You want good geek hero models? Science fiction shall be thy savior. Read some Neal Stephenson. Pick up some William Gibson. Or hey, try Connie Willis—she writes SF novels with a distinct romantic bent featuring brainier-than-average people. See how these authors make being a geek pretty damn sexy even if the books aren’t necessarily focused on sex or romance.

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Ranty McRant

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  1. 1
    cw says:

    Ohmigod this is hilarious. And so true.

    >>partially-resorpted fetal twin dangling from their forehead< <

    Now this I’ve yet to come across. IRL *or* in my reading, although that would be an interesting conversation piece in a romance.

  2. 2
    Meljean says:

    Yes, yes and yes!

    I love geek heroes—one of my favorite moments in a book was MaryJanice Davidson’s UNDER COVER. In the third novella, the geek hero comes in to the office for the first time while playing the Superman theme song. It’s hilarious, but I swear I know a bunch of people just like that (uh, but without the tons of cash).

    Ditto on the conversation—tangents are everywhere, and often very funny.

    I think a lot of people mix up “very smart” and “geeky”—I can see the smart in some heroes/heroines, but not often the geek. And, when the geek does come out, they are immediately cured through sexual healing—they take off their thick glasses and become sex gods. Whuh? Sure, there’s probably a lot of porn watching going on (Mulder, heh) but that doesn’t exactly portray a healthy sexual relationship for them to learn from.

  3. 3
    Candy says:

    Glad you found it amusing. But on re-reading it: GOOD FUCKING GOD I need to proof-read that shit better before mashing that “Sumit Entry” button. Off I go to correct stupid typos….

  4. 4
    Candy says:

    Yes, Meljean, you’re right: Smarter than average doesn’t always = geek. I see geeks as outsiders, and there are many classic hobbies/preoccupations (anime, Monty Python, The Simpsons, comics, video games, computer games, RPGs, SF/F) that are usually indicative of geekery as well. Geeks who are shy or reserved around strangers are very believable, but MAN, the way some of the romance novel geek heroes talk even after they get to know the heroine is so excruciating, it could make Baby Jesus cry.

  5. 5
    sybil says:

    I have nothing to add here but wwwhhhheeeeeeee a mulder and baby jesus crying reference in one thread.

    excuse me while I sqeeee

    ok move along now

  6. 6
    white raven says:

    I love the geek hero.  It’s mental masturbation.  I once fell in total lust with a long-time ren-faire junkie like me.  He could quote nearly every line in any Monty Python creation, but what seduced me was when he recited dialogue from The 13th Warrior.  I was a goner.  ;-P

    And speaking of Iron Chef, I watch the America series.  I want Masaharu Morimoto as my personal sex slave.  He can toss my pillows and/or my salad any day.

  7. 7
    Jorie says:

    Did you read and like Nerd in Shining Armor by Vicki Lewis Thompson?  That is the only effective geek hero I’ve seen in romanceland.  He didn’t speak like Spock.  He didn’t care much about his clothes, but since I don’t care much about clothes, I didn’t care.  He was funny.  He managed to fly a plane in an emergency because one of his hobbies was doing those flight simluator games or whatever they are.  Anyway, I’d be curious to hear your take on him.  (The book isn’t perfect but I found it quite funny and very readable.)

  8. 8
    Nicole says:

    Ah…you guys are my heroes.  I love geeks.  I’m married to a geek (Masters Electrical Engineering) and my friends are geeks (though mostly engineer geeks, I mean, one built a large Tesla coil by himself just for kicks, and a sawmill to build the coil).  And Monty Python…my husband once re-enacted the mattress/paperbag sketch in bed.  And I loved it.  And the little things that crop up into conversation, like clock edges.  And the hobbies…

    And they’re FUNNY.  And rather hot.  And funny.  At least the ones I know are funny.

  9. 9
    Emily says:

    I’m married to a physicist and about 90% of the people we hang out with are astro-physicsts (seriously).  I, too, know geeks!

    That said, I don’t think I’ve ever read a really great geek hero.  I’ll have to pick up the books you mentioned.

  10. 10
    Trout says:

    Wheeeeee!  I stay very, very far away from geek hero romances PRECISELY because of these reasons! I married a self-made geek myself, and sometimes his geekery goes way over my head, but damn is his brain sexy! I enjoy talking to geeks so much more than non-geeks – the mental twists they make, the plays on words, are so much more interesting and funny.

  11. 11
    Yummy says:

    Wassup with the “man on man” sex scenes.  Am I on the wrong site?

  12. 12
    Candy says:

    Yummy: Emma Holly writes “erotic romances.” This means different things for different people, but in Holly’s case, it means she explores a lot a sexual matter that’s been strictly taboo in traditional romances. Hence, man-on-man sex, man-on-man-on-woman sex, sex with an assortment of toys (used on both men and women), etc. I love it, but I imagine it might offend some sensibilities. I’ll have the review up some time late today or early tomorrow if you’re interested in finding out about the book in more detail.

  13. 13
    sybil says:

    come now yummy, I am sure that is very romantic to some

    and as far as erotica goes many many women love to read m/m

    too each their own and all that

  14. 14
    Yummy says:

    Oh, I’m not the prudish, but I was just curious.  I’m more of the one mand one woman kinda gal, but hey, to each his own.  And I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a fun read.  :D

  15. 15
    Monica says:

    Great post!

    I adore geeks, they’ve always been my fav.  And you’re right, now I think about it, I’ve never read about a real geek. . . and you’re right about them being more fascinating (and sexy) than the average bear.  Geeks come in ALL flavors.  My geeklove has been mostly fixated on black (including foreign) geeks (they are out there) and okay, maybe a Chinese guy (lots of those out there) back when.

    Yayyyy, Geeks!

  16. 16
    Candy says:

    Jorie: I haven’t read Nerd in Shining Armor. I’ve read and enjoyed Vicki Lewis Thompson in the past, but she can be really uneven in terms of quality. Mostly it’s her corniness that gets to me, plus how her characters fervently think about creating babies every time they get it on. Wanting children is all well and good, but to me, pregnancy ain’t sexy, and childbirth sure as hell ain’t sexy, and having that intrude in the nookie time turns me off. I’ve read some reviews and they seem to indicate that this book is pretty high in the cornball factor. If I see it in the bookstore, it’ll get the 15-page test, and thanks for the heads up.

    How ‘bout a bunch of us geek lovers start up some kind of consultancy? “Geeks R Us” or something.

  17. 17
    Beverly says:

    The line that got me ROTFL so bad I almost fell out of my chair, literally, was:

    “they’re genuinely uncomfortable people to be around—but are we really trying to portray these kinds of geeks as the geek hero? I mean, WHY?”

    Oh, so true, so true. I think that is the biggest contradiction out there in romances when authors do get the “geek” very wrong. Not mildly wrong, mind you, but irritatingly wrong. Why would anyone want someone that maladjusted as a hero/heroine anymore than they’d want a true alpha jerk as one?

    Personally, I’ve always thought Jayne Ann Krentz does geek well without overplaying them. Her heroes AND heroines are usually fairly smart but with truly quirky individual personalitities that give each of them their own unique “geekiness”. Somewhat stereotypical but never enough to get in the way of the story she’s trying to tell.

  18. 18
    Sarah says:

    I have been trying to figure out how to respond to this thread because, oddly enough because Candy and I don’t ever agree on stuff, I LOVE GEEK HEROES. I love nerdy heroes. And I LOVE when they are

    One of my favorite nerdy heroes is Yank from SEP’s Hot Shot. The best thing about Yank is that he’s so into his own head, yet he does see what’s going on. And when the heroine treats him shallowly, as if he’s not a real person with emotions, he totally calls her on it. The best part, he has the most amazingly hot affair at the end of the story. And he’s completely emotionally and physically engaged with her – it just took a long long time for him, and the other characters, to get to his emotional core.

    I think that’s the best way to see a well-written geek hero. A core of real and somewhat untapped emotions layered under a mountain of knowledge that protects the geek from having to engage those emotions unless the person he’s choosing to involve himself with has passed through and matched each of those layers of intelligence.

  19. 19
    Alyssa says:

    Erin McCarthy’s “Fuzzy Logic” in the Bad Boys Over Easy anthology has a geek hero. It’s a good story, and I love Lucas, the hero, though I tend to like McCarthy’s work. Not sure if you’d like the story, but it might be worth a look.

    Alyssa

  20. 20
    L.N. Hammer says:

    The sad thing is, SF does only a little better at geek heroes than Romance.  Though #3 is rarely an issue in those book.

    —-L.

  21. 21
    Candy says:

    I thought Hiro in Snow Crash was a pretty sexy computer geek hero. OK, he was pretty studly in general what with his katana and all, but y’know. The geeks in Cryptonomicon also resembled real-life geeks I know pretty closely. Both these books are by Neal Stephenson, which probably says “I’m a bitch for Neal!” more than anything else.

  22. 22
    L.N. Hammer says:

    I’ve been a bitch for Stephenson since reading his first novel, The Big U, as a sophomore.  Who was a gamer, and hung out in the physics labs.

    Yeah, he does good geek.  It could be argued that most of what he’s written is an attempt to seriously get Geek.  He’s something of an exception.

    —-L.

  23. 23
    Candy says:

    Y’know, I’m so much luckier and pickier in my SF reading than I am in my romance reading. I don’t think I’ve met an SF novel I haven’t liked yet, but then I’ve been reading mostly Big Names like Dan Simmons, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Vernor Vinge, Philip K. Dick. The possible exception would be Isaac Asimov, but I don’t dislike his books, I just find his writing style kind of meh.

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