Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture

If the Industrial Age was ruled by industrialists and the Atomic Age was epitomized by nuclear scientists working in secret government installations, then the Information Age we live in today is surely the era of the geek.

Just take a look at the titans of industries (computer nerds), Hollywood blockbusters (comic book superheroes), and pop culture (Interweb memes) - they're all geeky! But in order to live under the reign of our new geek overlords, one must learn to speak like one.

Stephen H. Segal (no, not that one) is our guide in learning geekspeak. He has compiled and edited some 200 of the most powerful and oft-cited quotes from geek culture. His book, Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teaching of Nerd Culture by Quirk Books, is not only an invaluable guide into geekdom (or is it geekhood? Help me out here, nerds!), it's also indispensable if you have to go undercover and penetrate a secret geek society.

For example:

"Fear leads to anger; Anger leads to hate; Hate leads to suffering." - Yoda, The Phantom Menace

Yoda was paraphrasing the first great African American geek, George Washington Carver, who said a century ago: "Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater."

Carver, a scientist plying his trade in a time when the intellectual inferiority of black people was simply assumed, knew something about suffering. Born into slavery, kidnapped as an infant, threatened repeatedly with lynching throughout his life, and rejected from school after school due to his race, Carver eventually went on to become one of the best-known American researchers in the biological and agricultural sciences.

Widely rumored to be gay, Carver spent his life confronting and overcoming the fears of others, earning an iconic place in geek history. Yoda might be the fictional guru we like to quote, but Carver is the real one whose life reverberates through our culture.

"The spice must flow." - Dune

Economic systems are bigger than people. That's why distribution of the precious mind-expanding spice, mélange, that is the lifeblood of galactic society in Frank Herbert's Dune must continue unimpeded. That's why, when Paul Atreides - the young nobleman who finds himself hailed as a prophesied savior - asserts his messianic will over the hitherto-powerless throngs of poor wretches living amid the spice mines of Arrakis, he causes commerce to grind to a standstill across a thousand planets, bringing the entire universe to heel.

Just as the spice is Herbert's thinly veiled stand-in for oil, gold, or any commodity that greases the wheels of earthly progress, its necessity highlights the inherent danger of linking any one such commodity with the maintenance of a particular status quo - whether cheap gas for our cars or cheap clothes at Wal-Mart.

"He who controls the spice controls the universe," says the evil Baron Harkonnen elsewhere in Herbert's epic, and it's a lesson that Paul takes to heart, bringing an entire monolithic structure of ingrained corruption down on the heads of those whose only real job was maintaining it.

Economic systems are bigger than people ... except when they're not.

"This is an imaginary story. But then, aren't they all?" - Alan Moore, Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?

From the 1950s through the 1980s, DC Comics would occasionally publish Superman stories based on offbeat scenarios that weren't part of the ongoing continuity of the regular monthly serial. The editors distinguished these fun hypothetical tales (President Superman! Superman's bratty kid! Superman and Batman as adopted brothers!) by noting on the cover: "An Imaginary Story" - as opposed to the "Real" continuing saga of the familiar Superman.

Yet this terminology begs the obvious question, which DC finally allowed postmodern comics pioneer Alan Moore to pose in the introduction to Superman #423. Yes, indeed, they are all imaginary stories - a fact that can get lost sometimes by the devoted fan of any serial set in a long-running, carefully consistent fictional world.

DC, its rival Marvel Comics, the Star Trek franchise: all these massive narrative constructs created fans who frequently loved cataloging and cross-referencing the details of the world as much as they loved the characters themselves. That's one big reason why geeks often get so upset at the news that their favorite fictional property is going to be "rebooted" for a new audience.

But the thing is, that's precisely how a legend grows and endures - by being retold again and again. Would anyone remember Hercules today if the Greek storyteller who first spun his tale insisted on maintaining creative control? If the fifteenth-century balladeer who sang rhymes about Robin Hood had been able to force all those who came after him to refrain from spinning their own variations, would Maid Marian or Richard the Lionheart have ever shown up?

As hard as it may be to look at a long-running quasi-epic and admit, "You know, this was awesome, but I'm bored - let's start over and do it differently," there's probably no better way to take a regular old good story and elevate it to the realm of timeless myth.

"I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit." - Ripley, Aliens

Movie logic frustrates most geeks. It just doesn't make sense for the people in a horror film to go one by one to investigate that strange noise in the dark - that didn't work out so well for the last five people, did it? It's stupid for the evil overlord to capture the intrepid hero and then leave him alone in a room full of convenient tools; any overlord with a brain would just kill the guy right off. All too often, Hollywood characters choose the more dramatic path through hardship rather than the smart one.

This was why the Alien films were such a breath of fresh air. Ripley, faced with a planetary colony full to overflowing with unstoppably murderous alien beasts, actually understood what she was up against. Never mind tryinng to safely capture an alien - it wasn't going to happen. Ripley pushed instead for the Occam's Razor method of problem-solving: simple, overwhelming, effective.

Thus "take off and nuke the site from orbit" has become geek shorthand for putting a decisive end to any dangerously messy problem. Overkill? Maybe. But sometimes you just have to be sure.

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play." - Joshua, War Games

There is a word, a concept, in Zen Buddhism that doesn't quite translate perfectly into the English language: Mu.

Mu is the response given by a Zen monk to a question that cannot be meaningfully answered. It suggest that the question's premises are not real, that there is a state of emptiness that lies beyond yes and no, that the asker should unask the question - indeed, that anyone who would ask such a question in the first place might well to question his entire perspective on life.

Though the word was never uttered in the 1984's seminal teen-computer-hacker-political-thriller War Games, the idea lies at the heart of the conflict that fuels the movie: a new Pentagon supercomputer that controls the nation's nuclear codes is caught up in a relentless war-game simulation trying to answer the question, "How can the United States win a nuclear war?"

We all know it's a flawed question - the whole point of the Cold War arms-race theory of "mutual assured destruction" was that, in a world of opposing superpowers, the sheer volume of weaponry is meant to deter the use of any nukes at all. But back in 1984, when computer networks were new and exotic, it seemed entirely reasonable to worry that an artificial intelligence might start firing missiles based on the inhuman outcome of an algorithm. Of course, the computer finally found its Zen.

What about you - can you tell when it's time to remove yourself from a defective board game?


Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture, edited by Stephen H. Segal, is painstakingly gathered and interpreted by a diverse team of hardcore nerds who've spent years poring over the most beloved texts of the modern-day imagination. Beginning with some 200 of the most powerful and oft-cited quotes from movies ("Do, or do not - there is no 'try'"), television ("The truth is out there"), comics ("With great power comes great responsibility"), science, the Internet, and more, Geek Wisdom offers illuminating insights into the eternal truths to be found therein. Yes, this collection of mini-essays is by, for, and about geeks - but it's just so surprisingly profound, the rest of us would have to be dorks not to read it.

Stephen H. Segal is the Hugo Award winning senior contributing editor to Weird Tales, the world's oldest fantasy/sci-fi/horror magazine, and an editor at Quirk Books. His geek portfolio includes work for Tor Books, Viz Media, WQED Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Melon. A native of Atlantic City, he lives in Philadelphia.

Geek Wisdom is available at Amazon | Official page at Quirk Books

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Thanks for the fun article. It's always good to remember the humor.

"Captain, please I apologize, the complexities of human pranks escape me." - New Spock
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@Eisenhorn

It could be said that his Divine Majesty the God Emperor of all Mankind lives by the credo "Take off and Nuke the Entire site from orbit."

Yet he also understands that this must be the weapon of last resort. There are after all only a finite number of life sustaining planets in the galaxy and none must be needlessly wasted since nobody is making any new ones. Thus he shows his wisdom in the use of the scalpel that is the Astartes Legions rather than the sledgehammer that is Exterminatus.
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