Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci
Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd is one of those books I think everyone has read but me, albeit not in the massive numbers as, say, the Millenium trilogy. One of my cousins picked it up from my favorite independent bookstore the last time he visited my stomping grounds, a woman in my writing group read it ages ago, and other book bloggers have picked through it. The arresting cover—I’ve always loved pixel art—is eye-catching and the subject matter definitely appeals to someone who thoroughly identifies as a geek.
Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd was born when Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, while attending Comic-Con in 2009, thought up a story about a Klingon and a Jedi waking up in bed together. But they didn’t have any outlet to publish it. Thus, this anthology was born—Black and Castellucci invited their friends to write short stories celebrating all that is geek, and they responded in droves. These short stories take place at conventions, meet-ups, high schools, trivia bowl tournaments, and late-night screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; each story involves characters who hold certain things, usually speculative fiction properties, near and dear to their hearts. Geek on.
This anthology starts off with Black and Castellucci’s anchor piece, “When You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All the Way”. While fantastically titled (though the meter is off), it’s a poor start. For two people with enormous amounts of geek cred—Black married a rival Dungeon Master and Castellucci sat in line for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace for six weeks (boy, she must have been disappointed)—it feels remarkably inauthentic, as if Black and Castellucci wanted to write about two characters from these distinctive sci-fi cultures colliding rather than two fans of the properties but wimped out at the last minute. This means that you’re often unsure if these characters have a handle on the divide between reality and fiction, which, I assure you, geeks certainly do. It fell flat for me, and it’s a shame—there are some wonderful stories in here.
M. T. Anderson (whom you probably know as the author of Feed) takes the general concept and runs with it, giving us “The King of Pelinesse”. Set in the age of pulp paperbacks, a boy sets off to confront his favorite author after discovering a letter from him written to his mother that insinuates an affair between the two of them. I read Feed ages ago, but “The King of Pelinesse” blew me away—the period feel is perfect, the author both funny, sympathetic, and pathetic, and the kid is, well, just a kid. It’s a breath of fresh air. Garth Nix’s “The Quiet Knight” is a short and sweet piece about a farm boy (nicely done, sir!) with a ruined voice discovering himself through live-action role-playing and his relationship with a girl he meets during a game. I need to revisit Nix. But I think my favorite piece is David Levithan’s contribution, “Quiz Bowl Antichrist”. Guys, I think I’m in love with this man’s writing; it’s funny, original, and bitterly human, complete with a prickly main character who has a heart… somewhere. It certainly helps that I used to be on debate (…we don’t talk about that) and could definitely identify with these kids. I need to read more Levithan; good thing I just won The Lover’s Dictionary!
There are other good pieces—Sarah Zarr’s “This Is My Audition Monologue”, an ignored theater geek’s passionate plea to her high school director, manages to hit exactly why I love acting so much, and Scott Westerfeld’s “Definitional Chaos” turns the traditional Dungeons and Dragons alignment chart into a noir piece—but, for the most part, it’s a very uneven anthology. “The Wrath of Dawn”, by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, bored me in its predictability (although the ending was cute), and Kelly Link’s bizarre and poorly executed “Secret Identity” is actually speculative fiction instead of being about geeks. And I was floored to discover that the lackluster “Freak the Geek”, in which not much actually happens and what does isn’t very interesting, was written by the highly recommended John Green—I’m even more hesitant about picking him up now. But by far the worst piece is “The Truth about Dino Girl”, in which a dinosaur-obsessed teenage girl takes revenge on a popular girl by slut-shaming her in front of the entire town. Yeah, she was mean, but lying to ruin her reputation beyond repair and breaking her up with her boyfriend isn’t something we ought to be rooting for. (Interestingly enough, “The Truth about Dino Girl” was written by a one Barry Lyga.) It left a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the anthology. I’m starting to think all multi-author anthologies are inherently uneven—anybody got any recommendations for ones that aren’t?
Bottom line: Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd offers a handful of fantastic stories among some decent ones—M. T. Anderson’s period piece “The King of Pelinesse”, Garth Nix’s “The Quiet Knight”, and David Levithan’s “Quiz Bowl Antichrist”. (I have got to read more of this man’s work!) But ultimately, it’s an uneven anthology, containing some lackluster work by some highly recommended writers and the hideously offensive “The Truth about Dino Girl”, where we’re expected to cheer for the worst case of slut-shaming I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Worth a rental for the above stories, but skip “The Truth about Dino Girl”. You’ll thank me later.
I rented this book from the public library.