Why do all sci-fi novels assume that if a person likes the same stuff as you, then they’re your soulmate

Ready_Player_One_coverJust finished reading Ready Player One by Ernst Cline, which is an incredibly fun and fast-moving thriller about a deceased billionaire who hides the clues to his fortune inside a virtual reality world and the team of plucky kids who attempt to find it (while battling a ruthless mega-corporation all the way, of course). Very much worth reading.

The weird thing about the book, though, is that the billionaire is really into 80s pop culture (because he was a teen in the 80s) and the key to finding his fortune–billions upon billions of dollars + control of his company and his virtual world–depends on being your mastery of 1980s video games and movies. Which the book, and all of its main characters, seem to think is just super cool. Like, of course, it’s a geek’s dream. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was some legitimate reason to watch Monty Python 147 times? Or to play Atari games until your thumbs fall off?

Like, at no point in the entire book does a single character stand up and be like, “Umm, isn’t this weird and unhealthy? None of this stuff is really that important…”

And I’m not saying that the book should have contained that, but it just goes to show, the book is serious. It, on some level, really does believe that 1980s cartoons and video games and movies and music are, I don’t know, what. That they’re safe and vibrant and better than reality, and that if you really like them, then you’re obviously some kind of superior person.

That’s the premise of the whole book, after all. The reason that the main characters can solve the puzzle and the evil corporation can’t is because the main chars are real fans, and the evil corporation isn’t soulful enough to really enjoy awesome stuff like that.

And it seems like more and more popular novels use ‘liking geeky stuff’ as a code for ‘this is a worthwhile and special person.’ I’m reminded, for instance, of the Leila Sales novel I recently read, This Song Will Save Your Life, where the protagonist really liked all this older music: the Pixies and the Strokes and stuff. Which is cool and all, but…liking old music doesn’t make you a better person. It doesn’t make you more worthy of being loved. Why is it that you never read a kid’s book where the protagonist is really into One Direction or Taylor Swift? How come you never read a novel that’s about someone who doesn’t like to read? I mean, after all, most people in the world don’t enjoy reading. Are we so profoundly alienated from them that we’re unable to imagine that people who don’t consume our preferred media can still have vivid and complex mental lives?

There is something very sad and impoverished about the view of human relations that is promoted by lots of popular novels. Sometimes it seems like novels have forgotten that there’s a deeper sympathy of souls that can arise between two human beings. We already know that two people who really like old movies can come together and talk old movies and have a fantastic time and feel connected to each other.

What we forget, though, is that friendship and love aren’t about shared interests. They involve a sense of connection and understanding that goes deeper than that. They’re about…a…a…a sense of fascination with each other. And that loving the same geeky shit really does nothing to provoke or prolong that sense of fascination. All it does is give you something to talk about once in awhile.

Comments (



  1. Becca

    I mean, on a meta-level, having a protagonist who likes to read/likes the same geeky stuff the reader is assumed to like/etc. is doing the exact same thing as making a friendship with someone who likes those things. It’s the easiest way to do it, which is why it’s so tempting! But people forget so easily that it’s not the only kind of connection to make, and often not the most valuable kind either.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, it’s an easy way to characterize your protagonists, because it flatters the reader. But that flattery is suspicious to me. There’s also the appeal to nostalgia. I do understand it, though. Genre fiction isn’t really kind to serious writers, and I’ve noticed that one way to slip through and find acclaim for serious work is to write nostalgia-inducing fiction. For instance, that Jo Walton novel, Among Others, is so slower-paced than the kind of novel that usually gets a lot of attention in SF circles, but because it was a huge ode to science fiction, it managed to win awards and move copies anyway.

  2. isabelcooper

    Long comment: avoiding work.

    I admit that I have no interest in people who don’t like to read, either fictionally or in real life. (Back in my OKC days, an “I don’t read for pleasure,” in the “favorite books” section was an instant dealbreaker.) Someone who doesn’t like to read is someone who’s generally incapable of quietly amusing him or herself, and I’ve got exactly zero patience for that. If you don’t like reading but prefer to sketch or solve math problems, sure, I guess that’s a different story, but you’ve got to have some hobby where you actually have an internal life and don’t bother those around you.

    And more generally: I don’t really believe in the “deeper sympathy of souls” thing–it’s a little too Anne of Green Gables for me. There’s compatibility of conversational styles, of worldviews, and of interests, and yeah, a certain degree of all the above is necessary for a friendship. SF is a large part of my life, and except for family, I’m probably not going to be very close to anyone who doesn’t get that; conversely, I’m going to avoid the hell out of a SF fan whose idea of humor is constant Python quotes; and I don’t have close friends who are seriously conservative, because no.

    That said, all of that is *necessary* for a friendly relationship, but it’s not sufficient for anything closer. “I can hang out with you and have a great time playing video games,” doesn’t really mean you’re the kind of person who won’t judge my sex life or who can cope with the way I handle problems. It doesn’t mean I’m willing to cope with the way *you* handle problems. Ideally, any story that expects you to believe that the main characters have a serious connection will cover these things.

    But common interests are a door, and most of us can’t walk through walls.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      This might be a ‘different strokes for different folks’ sort of situation. My primary interest in life is literature, but I don’t have very many friends who like books in the same way and to the same degree that I do. I don’t ask my friends about their reading habits, but I suspect lots of them are infrequent readers. And when I hang out with other writers, I oftentimes find myself wishing that we didn’t have to spend quite so much time talking about writing.

      Generally, when I get together with my peeps, all I do is gossip about other people that we know. Gossip is a pretty universal interest; it brings people together.

      1. isabelcooper

        See, I can get “doesn’t like books the same way” or even “mostly reads blog posts and articles”. But doesn’t like to read at all? Like, what do you *do* with yourself all day?

        Gossip works for me, but only as long as we have people in common that make for interesting subjects, and it doesn’t create a very lasting bond. I don’t really keep in touch with anyone from high school, for instance, and while being able to talk smack about No Volume Control Lady in the next set of cubes has made work gatherings a little more bearable, I don’t really miss said co-workers when they go. Those friendships are very much products of a time and place, and when either of those change, the friendships die off quick.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          I think people mostly either work really hard or watch lots of Netflix. Oftentimes both. Also, exercise and outdoor stuff. That’s pretty popular. And taking drugs! That is a popular pastime for some of my friends. Less and less as they get older, though.

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