Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
Back in May, actor, writer and all-around nerd hero Simon Pegg caused a fandom uproar when he made some probing observations about the current state of geek culture and Science Fiction films. In an interview with the British entertainment magazine Radio Times, Pegg said:
“Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me… just thinks we’ve been infantilized by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!
“It is a kind of dumbing down in a way. Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about… whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.
“But I sometimes feel like I miss grown-up things. And I honestly thought the other day that I’m gonna retire from geekdom. I’ve become the poster child for that generation, and it’s not necessarily something I particularly want to be.”
This raised a hue and cry from legions of butt-hurt fanboys who had always championed Simon Pegg as one of their own—a fellow nerd who got rich and famous by spreading geek culture to the masses. And suddenly he’s calling it childish and dumb.
The thing is, Pegg is right. Science Fiction has traditionally been for outliers, a haven for subversive ideas that challenged the mainstream. But the past 15 years has seen the genre go increasingly more mainstream, to the point where the once fringe San Diego Comic-Con has become the biggest commercial event of the mainstream entertainment industry.
As a result, what was once a vast nebula of shifting, challenging viewpoints has collapsed into a black hole of mindless consumption. And when Pegg has the temerity to question the current state of a genre that has always been predicated on asking questions and examining the status quo, he’s roundly chided by its most ardent adherents. Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally wrong with this picture?
If this is the current state of geek culture, is it any wonder that Pegg felt the need to pause? To step back and ask how we got from there to here, and re-examine how or even if he still personally relates to the genre in its current form?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, as I’ve wrestled with what Science Fiction means to me in general, and more specifically with problems I’ve always had with fandom. And I’ll admit that I’ve been all over the map on this issue.
If you look at some of the very first DeFlip Side articles I wrote, years before it made the transition to radio, you’ll find a version of me that’s frustrated with the heavy-handed, often outmoded social and political messages in Golden and Silver Aged Science Fiction—an English major jaded by too much literary analysis, who just wants to skip the cautionary tales and morality lessons and get to the neato business of space ships and time travel.
This is the same me who chided author Harlan Ellison for making a distinction between Sci-Fi and true Science Fiction. In Ellison’s opinion, Science Fiction was the probing literature and art plied by masters like Le Guin and Asimov. Sci-Fi was the pop culture garbage like Independence Day and Bill and Ted. I basically called him a crabby jerk and told him to come off it.
But as years passed, I found I was in growing agreement with Ellison. As the mainstream appeal of Science Fiction grew, the community was being increasingly defined by the parts of fandom that had most turned me off. It was becoming less and less about ideas, and more and more about cosplay and obsessive nostalgia over cartoons and action figures that anyone in my age group should have long ago outgrown.
Which is why I so stridently agree with Pegg’s assertion that we’re being infantilized by our own tastes. In the aftermath of the fan backlash, Pegg took to his website to further explain what he meant. He wrote:
“Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc… There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.”
It’s really hard to argue with that. Pegg then expands on his thoughts about the current state of genre films:
“I guess what I meant was, the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become.”
Anyone who saw Avengers: Age of Ultron knows what he’s talking about. And he wraps up by saying:
“Sometimes it’s good to look at the state of the union and make sure we’re getting the best we can get… it’s good to ask why we like this stuff, what makes it so alluring, so discussed, so sacred. Do we channel our passion and indignation into ephemera, rather than reality?”
I’m afraid I have to come down firmly on the side of ephemera here. We have heated debates about a black Johnny Storm and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman tats; the science behind Captain Cold’s gun or Kal El’s heat vision is more important to most of us than the science of climate change.
And I’m far from above it all. I’m still an avid consumer of pop Sci-Fi. I line up to see every Marvel movie and can’t wait for the DC Cinematic Universe to get into gear. Most of my Internet reading is devoted to genre film news and trailers, and I’m miffed that I won’t likely ever see my own favorite heroes like Plastic Man and Green Lantern Kyle Rayner on the big screen.
I’m not immune to nostalgia either. I have a regular segment on the Quantum Leap Podcast, obsessing about a show that’s been off the air for decades. And here I am right now, talking about this stuff on the radio, as I’ve been doing for fifteen years. So I’m as hopeless as those I’ve been pointing a finger at.
But for all that, whenever I write or talk about anything—whether it be movies or TV shows or books—I always try to identify and discuss the larger ideas at play, and frame things in a broader context. Fandom is a huge part of my life, but it’s not the only part of my life. It’s something to enjoyed and explored, not jealously guarded and endlessly obsessed over to the exclusion of all other pursuits. Just look how that worked out for Smeagol.
You’ll find links to the original Radio Times article and Pegg’s full reply below. His comments are insightful and humorous and cause for contemplation, and I urge you to read them in full. But if you don’t want to go through the hassle, let me break it down for you. In the end, I think that what Pegg is really telling us is that we need to pull our collective heads out of our fannish asses.