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.