Geek Underworld

Like every other nerdy outcast in various cities across the U.S., I went to see Terry Zwigoff's flick Ghost World. It was billed as a film for people like me and my friends: disgruntled, anti-corporate, obsessed with obscure topics, smart but not in a trendy or fashionable way. And unlike the usual brought-to-you-by-Microsoft summer blockbuster, Ghost World did in fact make a concerted effort to explore what it's like to rebel -- however quietly -- against the ubiquitous propaganda known as American consumer culture.

I shuffled out of the theater in a post-narrative glow as I recollected the movie's romantic geek hero and his beautiful young protege, redeemed by their mutual appreciation for obscure underground culture. But it just wasn't enough. Ghost World's characters were isolated, tragic, and ultimately doomed to lonely, loveless futures. The radical hacker in me was left wanting more rebellion, more about how dangerous and wild outcasts can be when they actually get together and form communities.

Lucky for me, a real-life geek rebel was in town last week, someone I couldn't imagine would ever be contented to keep her strange and compelling ideas on the down-low. Cecilia Tan, the notorious science fiction/erotica author, had come through San Francisco on a book tour for her latest novel, "The Velderet" (Circlet Press). I caught up with her at a coffee shop in the Mission to chat about science fiction, nerd social life, and of course, sex.

"I was always in the geek social class but wasn't aware of it as a tribal affiliation until after college," Cecilia said with her signature deadpan irony. An intense, dark-haired tomboy with wire-rim glasses, Cecilia grew up in classic geek style, "without any friends." Later, when she graduated and moved to Boston, she discovered that geekhood didn't mean being solitary. She started subscribing to various Boston-area mailing lists and realized "we have actual social lives, but not built with the structures that came out of in-crowd cliques and things like that." Later, Cecilia founded Circlet Press (, which is devoted to subversive, erotic and queer science fiction.

"The Velderet," a tale of heroic sexual rebels on an alien world threatened by invasion from a hostile race, is the perfect antidote to a movie like Ghost World. Rather than consigning its characters to loneliness and erotic futility, Cecilia offers a smart (and titillating) look at how underground communities form. Without giving away too much of the plot, I'll just say that it's about the strategic alliance between kinky sex adventurers, a network engineer, and some aliens. Because certain kinds of sex and long-term friendships have been outlawed on planet Bellonia, our tech-savvy heroes are forced to find sneaky ways to meet each other in cyberspace, using code words to identify each other and finding little-used parts of common networking programs to signal to each other when they're logged in.

Cecilia joked that the book is all about "how the kinky people are able to become heroes and save the world." But it's also about geek community, a group of people drawn together because they feel rejected by so-called normal society. This aspect of the book was inspired by Cecilia's real-life experiences as a sexual outlaw: she's part of the bdsm community, and is in a long-term non-monogamous relationship. "I always knew that monogamy was going to be a problem for me," she explained, "and what I discovered about the geek social set was that a lot of processing had already been done about polyamory [having more than one partner] and serial monogamy. People were in the same social set as their exes and they stayed friends."

In "The Velderet," characters are persecuted by the government for engaging in forbidden activities via cybersex. I wonder if Cecilia worries about similar things happening now in the Ashcroft Era of increased Internet censorship and surveillance. "Every new technology that comes along, people will find a way to use it for sex," Cecilia replied simply. "[Government regulation] can't stop people from taking pictures of themselves and posting them to their own pages."

Pausing to think for a moment, Cecelia continued, "Conservatives see sex as a source of disorder. But why can't we see it as a source of social order instead? Sex can be a building force, it can bind a community together. In subcultures, you can see this organizing force. You're not truly liberated if you're not free to indulge the fantasies and types of sexuality you enjoy."

And you're not free if you hide from mainstream culture in an isolated fantasy world, like the characters do in Ghost World. You have to find other people like yourself, to find a social life, even if that social life doesn't look like what the skinny white people on Friends have. Outcasts create their own forms of social organization. And who knows what that could lead to? Maybe geeks could help save the world.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants to form a community of geek perverts. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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