I Know It’s Only Science Fiction, But I Like It

Science fiction became rock and roll for me when I was seventeen, in the summer of 1999. Just before heading into my senior year of high school, I was pulling shifts at a big-box bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona, where I’d close the place four nights a week with my manager and personal hero at the time, Captain Space Pirate.

Outrageously handsome, thirtyish, with a dark mop of hair and a beard, and always dressed all in black, Captain Space Pirate was basketball-player tall, but hunched over in the way he’d probably done since burying his nose in books in grade school. This gave his handsomeness an Ichabod Crane resemblance. I didn’t know about Space Pirate Captain Harlock — the anime character — at the time, but that visage plus a beard isn’t far off. He drove a motorcycle to work and wore a black leather jacket, which, when taken off, revealed his black button-up and black skinny tie. He was a superhero mash-up of the Hamburg leather-wearing Beatles you see in those really old photos and the clean-cut Beatles on Ed Sullivan. And because he was the only person back then who knew more about Star Trek and Star Wars than I did, Captain Space Pirate was about as rock and roll as it got.

This might not be exactly proof that he was cool, but my mom totally had a crush on him. Though I usually drove myself to work in my 1987 Gold Dodge Ram 50 pickup truck — complete with an X-Wing fighter window decal, unironically affixed above a sticker for the band Oasis — one day I was forced to carpool with my mom so she could take my truck on some other errand after dropping me off. On that day, she went out of her way to go into the bookstore and give my boss, Captain Space Pirate, a hug. “It’s the smile,” she’d say when talking about him later. “He smiles like Indiana Jones.”

Captain Space Pirate told me he’d long ago dated one of the actresses from Buffy the Vampire Slayer before she was famous, but wouldn’t tell me which one. He told me he’d seen eleven different cuts of Blade Runner the year it was released. He told me that the novel version of Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, by George Lucas, was really written by a guy named Alan Dean Foster, even though Lucas’s screenplay came first. Captain Space Pirate’s girlfriend was only a little bit older than I was and I thought their age gap was terribly odd, but I internalized it all as part of what made my manager great. At that point, his girlfriend knew more about vampires than anyone I’d known.

He also gave me a break. Technically, Captain Space Pirate shouldn’t have hired me at this bookstore at all, because it was against the larger company policy to take on anyone under eighteen. But he’d given me a job because I’d consistently attended the geeky gaming nights and Star Wars book club stuff since the age of fourteen. When I got the job, I couldn’t believe my luck: I was getting paid to read books and talk about Star Wars all day long. I was beginning my rock-and-roll fantasy of living in the protected world of geeky stuff I loved, surrounded only by people who “got it.” And, prepare to be shocked: plenty of my co-workers claimed that they did in fact “get it.”

The year 1999 was a very good one for hot-blooded geeks getting their ire up about all the things they hated to love and all the things they loved to hate. If you’ve seen High Fidelity, then you’re familiar with a certain amount of overly informed pseudo-intellectual banter that pervades a place where people are way more into the things than the people they’re selling them to. Jack Black’s character, Barry, epitomizes this in High Fidelity: someone who is such a snob that he won’t sell a certain record to a patron because the patron doesn’t like it the “right” way. At my bookstore, we had four sci-fi Barrys on any given shift, all quick to cut me down to size about my severely underdeveloped opinions on everything from Star Trek to Babylon 5 to the death of Superman to whether or not the Dune series is inherently ruined by virtue of the fact that it’s read at all. Back then (and occasionally, shamefully, now) I was sometimes that guy, too, the snob accidentally lecturing someone about the “real” Buck Rogers or why a certain interpretation of Batman or Sherlock Holmes “sucks.”

Captain Space Pirate, however, was too soft, too sweet, to correct me the way some of the other angry clones would. He wasn’t bitter or jaded, but instead steady and tolerant of my nerd-rage outbursts. If I wanted to pretend to know everything about the history of werewolf films, Captain Space Pirate would simply allow me to embarrass myself on my own, letting me stick my own monster-clawed foot into my ignorant young mouth.

Notably, for complicated hormonal, contrarian reasons, I’d decided to come out as an iconoclast and pretend like I totally hated the at- the-time-brand-new movie The Matrix, even though, objectively speaking, it was awesome. In case you forgot: The Matrix is a 1999 movie in which Keanu Reeves lives an ordinary, boring life, only to learn his real life is fake and everyone in the world is actually strapped into a big old computer program being controlled by aliens. And the jam is, once Keanu is in the good part of “the Matrix” he can do all sorts of crazy kung fu stuff and essentially turn into a rapid-punch video game character while listening to songs from Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, or — wait for it — Rage Against the Machine. And very lazily, I hated it. I told myself that this whole Matrix thing was messy and filled with bad angsty music, which made it all way too close to home. The Matrix was science fiction, but because I personally couldn’t actually escape into it, I decided it didn’t do science fiction “the right way” and overreacted by telling all my fellow Barrys that it was “crap.” The easiest way to do this was to make claims leaning on a fake sense of superiority and imagined sci-fi education I affected that I already possessed. I’d say things like “it’s not original” and then sort of just imply that everyone knew there must be some sort of crusty old sci-fi text from which The Matrix ripped off all its good ideas. To be clear: I wasn’t actually sure this was true, but chose to act like I was right anyway. It’s backward science: here’s my hypothesis, don’t bother checking my research, and now, let me get mad that you don’t agree! I guess I figured everyone else was totally full of shit, too, and since no one was really keeping track of this stuff, it probably didn’t matter if I was right or wrong about The Matrix. The thing to do was to have an opinion, and if you were a true geek, the default opinion was probably always going to be negative. This, more than anything, explains the painful popularity of the character of Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, who is always dismissively declaring everything the WORST THING EVER!

I imagine I made life very difficult for Captain Space Pirate with all of my bullshit back then. Probably one of the reasons Luke Skywalker is such a compelling character is because Mark Hamill plays him so specifically without irony in the first Star Wars film. Luke alternates between eager to please one minute and whiny and questioning the next. It might seem like an inconsistency in his character, but it’s beautifully accurate to what it’s like to be young and a “rebel without a cause.” Even before the Imperial Stormtroopers murder Luke’s family, he’s a frustrated, angry person. Once his aunt and uncle are reduced to smoking skeletons, he’s got an excuse, but most of us don’t have that. We’re just pissed-off adolescents. Maybe you were, but I was, definitely. There’s a great Louis C.K. joke about how guys on first dates try on “all kinds of other guys,” while attempting to figure themselves out, and I think that’s what Luke Skywalker is doing in his first outing, and I think that’s what a lot of us do as teenagers. Regurgitating half-baked opinions from things we’ve read, while trying to piece together what kind of person we might be. Luke had Obi-Wan Kenobi to steer him in the right direction, and I had Captain Space Pirate.

As far as actual work-in- the-bookstore stuff went, Captain Space Pirate didn’t run a tight ship at all, and I often got the impression that he was under a lot of pressure from his corporate superiors to get his merry band of disaffected nerds to actually shelve the books properly. You’d think the Star Wars books would be organized. And because I was generously assigned to organize the science fiction and fantasy book section, you’d think that I would have made sure everything there was tops. Instead, it was a mess. An unruly joke factory, a bookseller’s nightmare combined with the kind of disorganization necessitating hypnosis for librarians to repress.

I’ll never know if Captain Space Pirate sabotaged his motorcycle that one night, or whether it genuinely wouldn’t start, but the net result was that I had to give him a ride home, and we had to load his motorcycle into the back of my pickup truck. Captain Space Pirate lived forty-five minutes away in a housing community where he was that guy on the urban- planning board who would wonder aloud why they wouldn’t let him paint his house all black. We talked about this a little on the drive, but also about work. This is when he asked me why my section wasn’t really as organized as it could be.

“So what’s the deal with the Star Wars books?” he said, and my memory has added that he’s holding a cigarette, even though he really didn’t smoke.

“What do you mean?” I said, merging onto the U.S. 60 while turning down “One Headlight,” by the Wallflowers, on the radio.

“It’s a fucking mess, man.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “And you know, I don’t really care, but I thought you’d at least try a little harder when it came to the things you’re actually interested in. I mean, of all the people that work there, you’re the most qualified to make that section look better.”

“But nobody cares, man,” I said, feeling guilty, and doing what all teenagers do when they’re guilty: fight back.

“Well, I care.”

When Captain Space Pirate threw a Luke Skywalker quote back in my face, I knew something needed to change. I realized something right then that would inform how I viewed not just my own adult life, but science fiction and fantasy specifically. The angry nerds we worked with at the bookstore might not care if the Star Wars books were organized properly, and the average customer might not give a damn either, but Captain Space Pirate noticed and I should, too. Just because something is silly, or is involved with dubious standards of legitimacy — like science fiction and fantasy — doesn’t mean you don’t take it seriously. Which is exactly like real rock and roll.

Living a rock-and-roll lifestyle sometimes means sex, drugs, and being irresponsible, but people have to take their music seriously to actually exist, to matter. You know, to be rock stars. Being angry or contrarian about sci-fi and fantasy wasn’t enough. My friend and mentor was holding me to a higher standard, one that meant I wouldn’t devolve into being someone who just started arguments by declaring something was or was not “the worst thing ever.” Being rock and roll means a little more than just breaking guitars on a stage, since you’ve got to know how to play that guitar in the first place. And thanks to Captain Space Pirate, I realized a lot of our buddies were just breaking guitars without knowing what to do with them. Science fiction and fantasy was our rock and roll and it was up to us to do it right.

By the time I turned eighteen, that particular corporate bookstore had an incompressible magazine section, a ridiculously mis-shelved philosophy section, and a self-help section that would actually cause people to have new emotional breakdowns. But the science fiction/fantasy section was now meticulous. In an era before Wikipedia could guide me, I’d created subgenres other branches of our chain bookstore wouldn’t have dreamed of, and within a specific author section, the book titles were no longer shelved alphabetically. No, no, no. Now, those titles were shelved in publication order, meaning back then, we had The Chronicles of Narnia in what many today would consider the “right” order.

When it came to the Star Wars books, though, doing it by author or publication order made zero sense, and here, Captain Space Pirate was super-impressed with what I’d come up with. Back then, when the Internet was more like a bad special effect than something pervading our real life, I’d put the Star Wars books in an order I’m fairly confident existed only in a handful of other places at the time. Just as John Cusack’s Rob organizes his records “autobiographically” in High Fidelity, I put the Star Wars books in a specific reading order; each section told the specific biography of a particular character. There was a small Han Solo section; a section for books that were more Princess Leia–centric; a section for some of the anthologies out at the time that focused on the minor, briefly seen characters; a Chewbacca section; plus larger stretches of shelves for Luke, and his dad, Darth Vader.

Meanwhile, was I right about The Matrix? Well, as a real adult, I’ve come up with a fairly comprehensive Matrix rip-off list, including a good chunk on William Gibson’s cyberpunk stuff and the famous 1967 Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” In that particular short story, people are tortured by a gleefully malevolent computer program that hates them. The story ends with a dude literally being turned into a blobby thing that doesn’t have a mouth, like Keanu losing his mouth at the start of The Matrix.

I’ve never lost my big mouth, but I did figure out having one wasn’t the thing that made science fiction like rock and roll. Instead, you had to really be cool to be cool. Like Captain Space Pirate, I figured out the best way to look at this stuff is to wear your leather jacket over your button-down and tie, and to talk about science fiction like it is the only thing that matters, but know your stuff, too. Even if you loved Star Wars, you probably wouldn’t have noticed my bizarrely nuanced shelving system, which evokes that age-old question: if you can speak perfect Ewokese but there’s not an Ewok around to hear it, does it still count as perfect? I think Captain Space Pirate knew the answer, and after that summer, so did I.

This essay is excerpted from Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths, which will be published this week by Plume.

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