I was a nerd and a geek before it was cool. I say that not to sound superior or exclusionary – that’s the whole point of nerds and geeks, we don’t exclude; we’re the excluded – but to provide context: I was a skinny, buck-toothed, uncoordinated kid with a too-smart mouth and goofy glasses. I was always other. There was no internet to connect me to other weirdos. No one revered me for my impressive vocabulary or proper grammar. So naturally, when I discovered a genre of fiction dedicated to the alien, the strange, the fantastical, it would resonate deeply with my misunderstood little soul. My happy place wasn’t the playground or the mall. It was Tatooine or the Enterprise. I wanted to ride dragons on Pern and go adventuring in Xanth. I wanted to be anywhere but in my boring, mundane life, and yet, what I yearned for was connection.
Looking back now, I realize that what appealed to me most in all of those far-fetched tales, what appeals to me now, in fact, are the particularly human moments. They are perhaps made more relatable because they happen in the most bizarre settings. The extraordinary circumstances and odd characters provide a sharp relief for familiar, ordinary human emotions: love, fear, hate, grief, joy, uncertainty. And that’s how you get zapped into a story. The little girl I was wanted nothing more than to be transported to a far-off world or into an amazing adventure, and I now realize that that moment you look at the mutant/superhero/rebel princess/artificial intelligence and think, “I know how that feels” you are there.
I loved the movie The Avengers for a hundred different reasons (ok, Tom Hiddleston might be, like, 67 of those reasons) but this exchange was so unexpectedly fantastic because it’s a snarky little human squabble. Guess what? Even in the middle of a terrifying and epic struggle against dark forces, your coworkers can get on your damn nerves.
Or how about this poignant scene from the movie Electric Dreams (takin’ it old school here, people) in which a young architect who has inadvertently brought his computer to life is clumsily trying to woo his beautiful neighbor with the help of said computer. Are we not all Moles? Filled with yearning but unsure how to convey that to our crush? My 14 year old self certainly was. Who amongst our nerdy tribe has not also suffered the trials of navigating human emotion as Edgar the computer does? Not to mention having your work copied. Grrrrr, indeed, Edgar. Plus, I cannot lie. I just needed to include this bitchin’ Culture Club song because it still gives me the feels.
It’s not possible to talk about human connection and relationships in sci-fi and fantasy without mentioning Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Some of the most wonderful, difficult, touching, piercing moments happened on that show. To this day, I think of the Yellow Crayon Speech as one of the best testimonials of friendship ever. Xander Harris is the gold standard of best buds.
Xander: The first day of kindergarten you cried because you broke the yellow crayon and you were too afraid to tell anyone. You’ve come pretty far – ending the world, not a terrific notion – but the thing is, yeah, I love you. I love crayon-breaky Willow and I love scary-veiny Willow so if I’m going out, it’s here. If you want to kill the world . . . well, then start with me. I’ve earned that.
Willow: You think I won’t?
Xander: It doesn’t matter. I’ll still love you.
Or how about the moment when a devastated Buffy faces Angelus, the soulless demon who used to be her boyfriend, having lost almost everything, including her virginity to him? This is a hell yes moment for every one of us who has ever felt lost or hopeless.
Angelus: No weapons . . . no friends . . . no hope. Take all that away and what’s left?
Steven Spielberg always said of the classic E.T. that it was really just a story of a young boy dealing with the hurt and loneliness of his parents’ divorce. When I first saw it, all I knew was that I was transported. As an adult, I can see how my empathy was engaged, and how, years later, this scene can still tug hard at my heartstrings:
ET, pointing to his heart: “Ouch!”
Elliot, in tears: “Ouch.”
In writerly circles, you hear talk of “finding a way in” to your story. I think when it comes to the geek nation, sci-fi and fantasy are just that. A way in to our stories. We feel weird. Alien. Other. Maybe when we’re young, we want to be anywhere but this planet. We’d love for a Tardis to show up and sweep us off on an adventure, or for a letter from Hogwarts to arrive. We want to make sense of our strangeness. Yet, what connects us most deeply to the weird and wild tales that we love is simple humanity. The parts of ourselves that we recognize in the midst of the outlandish let us know that we fit, somehow, in this big puzzle.
What are some of your favorite human moments from sci-fi and fantasy? Share in the comments!