March 05, 2009

Geek canon - the books

James brings up a good point in that we're not talking about various sub-geek classifications here; just the traditional "geek". There's anime fans out there who aren't up on the ancient lore of the geek, to be sure. On the other hand, there's also a lot of overlap...

The real problem with identifying canonical geek books is that there really is a variance in how much geeks read. Plenty of geeks come in from the video game end of things and hardly read anything, much less hardcore science fiction. But eh, that's canon for you; it's the list of stuff everyone should be familiar with, not the list that everyone actually is.

The exemplar of the geek canon for books is Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and the rest of the trilogy, not necessarily So Long and Thanks For All the Fish and absolutely not Mostly Harmless). One of the essential pieces of geek knowledge is that under certain circumstances, six times nine is forty-two.

Lord of the Rings is obviously part of the literary geek canon, though honestly, the movies are surprisingly close and can substitute in a pinch.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say Harry Potter, these days. They may be a bit mainstream, but it's enough part of the conversation that you can expect to see references.

People have been mentioning Snow Crash, by Stephenson. Granted that it is indeed highly geek and quite awesome, and was revolutionary in that it predicted several things which we take more or less for granted back before they were obviously going to happen. I'd say that it's quite high on the list of books that a geek should read and enjoy. At the same time, it's NOT referenced all that often, which is surprising, because the "baddest man in the world" paragraph is outright profound. It's a great gateway drug for Stephenson, whose novels make my inner nerd delirious with joy, but I don't know that I can argue that it's mandatory.

It's easy to say "Clarke and Heinlein", but what, really? 2001? I haven't read that book in 20 years, and never saw the movie. Rama? Nah. Foundation? Doesn't work for me. Starship Troopers, maybe, except you could argue that you might as well read Old Man's War (and you should). Maybe Moon is a Harsh Mistress?

Help me out here.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at 04:27 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 I think that the problem with the geek canon is that a lot of the important ideas, themes, and concepts that you absolutely have to know to be a geek can be found in multiple sources.  For example, I expect a geek to understand the basics of space opera sci-fi: FTL travel, ship to ship combat, energy weapons, mecha, etc.  There are a lot of movies and books that cover all those concepts.  If I talk about power armor, does it matter if your understanding of the concept comes from Starship Troopers or Bubblegum Crisis?

The most specific example of geek canon I can think of is "Asimov's Laws of Robotics".  I expect a geek to understand if I say a setting features Asimovean or non-Asimovean AI.  I expect most geeks to understand the idea behind Clarke's Law, even if they don't recognize the name: "Any Significantly Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable from Magic".  I expect most geeks to grok "grok" and understand that TANSTAAFL, even if they've never read the books in question.

Posted by: Civilis at March 05, 2009 05:49 PM (glLYq)

2 Missin' the point, I think. The idea behind a canon isn't that the works therein are the only places that the ideas within those works are represented. It's so that you can have a common body of references, so that when one person makes an allusion, the other guy gets it and doesn't just go "durrrr".

At the same time, there's a certain amount of groupthink involved, sure. If you're going to say that Holy Grail is a canon movie, you're excluding people who don't think that "I'll bite your knees off!" is funny movie material. To an extent, this is a good thing, right?

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at March 06, 2009 03:32 AM (7TgBH)


I still have't read a single  Harry Potter book, never really appealed to me. Clark is better for short stories rather than full novels (nine million names of god being the best IMO), would def. second Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I think everyone should have read some Bradbury, Niven (Ringworld!) and Pratchett too.

Finally, every geek should have a copy of Weezer's blue album. 

Posted by: Andy Janes at March 06, 2009 04:56 PM (8sv/y)

4 Harsh Mistress, definitely.  I'd argue for 2001 and Childhood's End, even though I found the later to be hatefully wrong-headed.  But then, I've never really liked Clarke - he's always struck me as a bastard.  Stranger in a Strange Land is more hippie canon than geek canon.

Here's one for you: Pournelle & Niven's Oath of Fealty, if for nothing else, the popularization of "think of it as evolution in action".

Posted by: Mitch H. at March 09, 2009 01:42 PM (jwKxK)

5 Why do these have to be just fictional books?

There are some very snappy technical books that many people have read and admire.

Spivak's Calculus.

Geometry by Jacobs.

Halliday, Resnick & Walker Physics

Our Friend the Atom

which is also a video as are James Blinn's dancing equations in Project Mathematics and the Mechanical Universe.

Posted by: unsquander at March 11, 2009 08:50 PM (AEdWT)

6         Well, if you're looking for canon material, you need to start at the beginning:

H. G. Wells: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, maybe The Invisible Man.

Jules Verne: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, maybe From the Earth to the Moon.

Olaf Stapledon was important also, but I'm not sure you can call him canon, since so few people read him now.

And, of course, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.

Posted by: D B Malmquist at March 14, 2009 11:39 AM (PaaWV)

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