Nerdish Musings, Uncategorized

In Memoriam

So, Harper Lee died the other day. This made me rather sad, because she’s been my hero since I was 13, and now I’ll never get to meet her. But she left behind quite the legacy: arguably the greatest American novel ever written, and the only enjoyable section of lit class in high schools everywhere.

Anyway, I couldn’t think of anything profound to say about a woman who said everything so well, so I wrote a poem for her instead. I’m sure she would have hated it. Here it is:

To Scout

Your words are a strong house
raised from the same Alabama mud as your
sharp bones, your smiling skin.

Its warm, sun-baked walls hang
heavy with time and countless rains,
but the windchimes dance on the porch
and every window is open.

It is a house to be silent in.
A place for looking and listening.
The only music a mockingbird’s cry.

For you, word-builder, loved silence also–
to chase away the noise of fame
and accept praise, derision with only
a nod.

You were pale
and mysterious, cooped up in your house,
though not out of shame,
and I used to lean on your fence,
peer at the windows,
wishing for a tongue to tell you.

For you had given me much:
a new set of spectacles, through which
all people looked more lovely.
You had given me laughter
and sharp, tearing beauty
and a windy, impossible dream.

You have left your house now
and it is the only fitting headstone.
Your words and silences,
fitted together like bricks in mortar
and finished at last.
But you already knew about finishing:
how to speak your piece, bow, and leave the stage
having done one thing well.



Nerdish Musings, Uncategorized

How to Be a Better Nerd: A Hobbit’s Guide

It’s 2016, and nerds are ruling the future. Gone are the days of the four-eyed social outcast reading comic books in secret. Now we have all the best-paying jobs, we drive million-dollar industries, we control Hollywood and we’re responsible for the weapon of mass manipulation that is social media. And as a member of the nerd community, I worry that all the power and success may go to our heads. We might be in danger of thinking that our nerdiness makes us special, and therefore nothing we do in the name of nerdiness should ever be called into question. We may forget that our undying love for Star Wars doesn’t give us the right to insult the parentage of everyone who thought Jar-Jar Binks was an okay character.

Let’s face it: as awesome as nerd culture usually is, there are wrong ways to participate in it. There are terrible nerds out there who use their hobbies as an excuse to become bullies or anti-social couch potatoes. Most of us aren’t like that, but it’s a trap I’ve repeatedly come close to falling into. So, to help myself avoid becoming that guy, I turned to the godfather of all nerds for advice.

Here he is, smoking the pipe of wisdom.

J.R.R. Tolkien more or less invented us. Cosplay, LARPing, conventions, Dungeons & Dragons, and the very concept of high fantasy can all trace their origins back to him. And, while I doubt he could have foreseen back in the ’50s that I would be blogging about him in the year 2016 after binge-watching the extended editions of all three movies based on his most famous book, I do think his writing shows remarkable insight into the kind of culture he would eventually create. If you look closely at The Lord of the Rings, you will find that there are lots of nerds in Middle Earth–both good and bad ones.

For our first example, let’s look at Gollum.

Pictured: me, after that Extended Trilogy marathon.

Gollum’s life is a sad story, as Gandalf tells us. He started out as a normal, hobbit-like creature who enjoyed fishing, digging holes, and telling riddles. Then he found the One Ring. By the time Bilbo meets him in The Hobbit, the Ring is all Gollum thinks about. He hasn’t seen the light of day in hundreds of years, he has no friends, and he can barely even remember what the living world is like, all because of the Ring. Worse, he actually knows the Ring is responsible for all his misery, but he can’t let go of it. He’s an addict. He has no control over his own life, because his obsession owns him.

In other words, Gollum is the stereotypical nerd. No social life, no outdoor activity, no personal hygiene–only Star Trek. Or Star Wars. Or video games. Or what-have-you. And sadly, this stereotype exists, albeit in milder form. Haven’t you ever felt a bit like a pale, shrivelled tunnel creature while emerging from the basement after a long Netflix binge? I know I have.

And it goes deeper. How did Gollum get the way he is? After all, not everyone who encounters the Ring immediately commits murder over it, or allows it to drive them away from all their friends. The Ring always corrupts its bearer eventually,  but it takes much longer with some than with Gollum. Well, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien proposes a reason why the Ring attracted Gollum more than it did, say, Frodo. It’s because, long before he found it, Gollum (or Smeagol, at that point) was already obsessed with secret knowledge.

He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his eyes and head were downward.

The first thing Smeagol does with the Ring, once he has it, is use its invisibility powers to find out secrets about his neighbors. That’s part of why he enters that cave in the first place–to find secrets hidden under the earth. Smeagol starts out wanting to know everything about everything. He wants to become superior to his neighbors by knowing more obscure, hidden secrets than they do. The Ring gives him his chance, but ultimately the things he learns turn out to be worthless. Again, painfully familiar. All too often, my relationship with the Internet bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Gollum’s relationship with the Ring. I enjoy the power and knowledge it gives me, but prolonged exposure just shrivels me up and cuts me off from the world.

Now let’s look at an example of a good nerd. There are several to choose from, but I picked Bilbo Baggins.

Again, the pipe of wisdom.

Like Gollum, Bilbo is a curious hobbit who’s not too fond of company. He loves poetry and stories of adventure, not to mention his eager study of maps and languages, but he’s such a stay-at-home fellow that it takes a posse of dwarf royalty and a very powerful wizard to convince him to go on a real adventure. Again, just like every nerd ever. When Bilbo encounters the Ring (and steals it from Gollum), he uses it to help him on his adventure and, later, to avoid unwelcome visitors. But he never kills for it, and in the end he’s able to give it up willingly–one of only two Ringbearers ever to do so. What makes Bilbo so much more resistant to its evil than Gollum?

I think it’s partly because, unlike Gollum, Bilbo never had a great desire to be better than other people. He doesn’t need to know more secrets of the Elves than anyone else in the world. He likes translating their poetry, but he doesn’t really care if anybody else reads it. And Dwarvish armour and weapons are neat, but he donates them to museums when he’s tired of them hanging on his mantelpiece. Bilbo just doesn’t have a huge desire for power and prestige, which is why the Ring has a harder time corrupting him.

The other reason for Bilbo’s triumph is that, even though he’s a bit of a shut-in, at no point does he develop hatred for other people. He’s polite to the dwarves, even as they’re showing up unannounced and eating all his food. Although he doesn’t really fit into hobbit society after his adventure, the only hobbits he ever admits to disliking are the Sackville-Bagginses–and even they get farewell presents when he leaves the Shire. And, most importantly, he shows mercy to Gollum when he had every reason to kill him. Bilbo may not be the most sociable of hobbits,  but he doesn’t push people away. He may not go to a lot of parties, but if you knock on his door, you can be sure he’ll have a plate of seedcake and a story about dragons for you.

Bilbo is the very best kind of nerd: one who likes what he likes for its own sake, and couldn’t care less whether other people think he’s cool or crazy for it. He has true friends whom he values more than “hoarded gold” or any of his hobbies. And he never expects those hobbies to make him superior to others in any way.

So I’m making it my New Year’s resolution to be more like Bilbo and less like Gollum. Fewer solitary all-nighters spent hunched over a screen, more face-to-face discussions about the deeper cultural meanings behind the Avengers movies. Less arrogance, more good-natured fun. And I resolve to go outside more than once every 500 years.



Nerdish Musings

Death, Be Proud

Death is not a nice thing. Most people are afraid of it to some extent, and we often avoid talking about it, even though it’s the only experience (aside from birth) that all humans share. But for some reason, when Death becomes a character in a story, he (or she) is almost always a really chill dude. Maybe it’s the edgy Goth fashion sense or the sarcastic wit or the fact that so many writers like to take the terror out of the inevitable. Whatever it is, I’ve never met a fictional Grim Reaper I didn’t like.

Here are three of my favourite Deaths in fiction:

3. Death the Horseman from Supernatural

This guy simply oozes class. From the moment he first stepped onto the show (in slow motion, out of a stylish white car, to the sound of “O Death” by Jen Titus), he was firmly established as the most awesome entity in Supernatural‘s mythology. He’s at least as old as God, his mere presence is enough to wipe out whole cities, and he’s so far above humans that he thinks of them as bacteria. Dean Winchester, who once taunted a whole room full of pagan gods and called the Devil a “cockroach,” shuts up if Death so much as raises an eyebrow. And yet, underneath the frightening powers, he’s just a laid-back sort of person with a fondness for junk food and nice suits. He sometimes finds humans annoying, but he’s also willing to help them out if they manage to get his attention. He even helped save the world a few times. He also has a really cool-looking scythe, although so far we’ve never seen him use it.

2. DEATH from Discworld

Of the many wonderful characters in Terry Pratchett’s wonderful fantasy series, I think Death is my favourite. He appears at least once in almost all 40 books, and he’s easily one of the most sympathetic and likeable residents of the Disc. Which is impressive, because he’s literally a skeleton in a black cloak who can only be seen by people who are about to die and always speaks in ALL CAPS. But he’s also an excellent adoptive father and grandfather, he takes good care of his pets (Death of Rats and Binky the horse), and he, too, has saved the world on more than one occasion. He shows genuine compassion to the souls he collects, mixed with a healthy dose of dry humour. And talking of cool scythes, his is so sharp it can split atoms. His granddaughter Susan is pretty fantastic, too. Doesn’t hurt that she inherited a few superpowers from granddad.

1. The Narrator from The Book Thief

There are many great versions of Death in the world of fiction, but none of them can hold a candle to this one when it comes to eloquence and compassion. This Death doesn’t like his job. At all. He hates World War II and all the suffering it caused as much as the next person. But he loves colours. He loves words. And he loves the Book Thief and all that she teaches him about humanity. Few first-person narrators have ever drawn me so completely into a story, or given me so many insights to take with me to the real world. This Death isn’t just cool – he’s beautifully wise. And yes, he does have a sense of humour, which is really important, considering the book’s dark subject matter. But mostly I love him for his last line in the book: “I am haunted by humans.”

(P.S. The Book Thief is a ridiculously sad book. I highly recommend it for rainy days.)

Have I missed any good Deaths? Which are your favourites?


Nerdish Musings

Zombies vs. Vampires: A Scholarly Discussion

Every lover of monster tales has pondered this question at some point: which is better, zombies or vampires?

The reason for comparison is obvious–I mean, they’re both undead creatures that feed on the living and turn their victims into monsters. They both originated in folktales and legends, and were incorporated into Western culture through a single, definitive story (Dracula for vamps; Night of the Living Dead for zombies), and have been popping up in every corner of the entertainment industry ever since.

The answer to the dilemma is also obvious: ZOMBIES, duh! This is not just my opinion. It is a fact. Allow me to explain.

The thing is, vampires stopped being scary about a century ago. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a story even try to paint a vampire as something that could keep you awake at night? They can be slightly creepy when played well, but nightmare-inducing? Nah.

This is because the fears Bram Stoker was playing on in his original novel–which was intended to be scary, and still is when it’s not busy putting the reader to sleep–are no longer relevant. He was writing at a time when British people were worried about immigrants and progressive women taking over their country, and Dracula is all about bringing those fears to life. In the shape of a blood-sucking guy from a foreign land who’s here to turn all your women against you. Granted, lots of people are still worried about immigrants and women today, but it’s not as cool to admit it–or for an author to admit he’s pandering to that audience.

So nowadays, when vampires aren’t a complete joke, they’re portrayed as cool, bad-boy (or bad-girl) heartthrobs with fantastic dress sense. And since their standard method of attack is so overtly sexual, there is really only one story a modern writer can tell about vampires: a really messed-up romance.

Now, messed-up romances can be good, if the author acknowledges how messed-up they are (see Wuthering Heights for a helpful guide) and shows some realistic consequences (vampires make great metaphors for STDs, for example). But even good ones can get old really fast, and it’s almost impossible to make them scary in the way you expect from a good monster tale.

Zombies, on the other hand, have never lost their ability to be terrifying. This is partly because they are freaking walking corpses that mindlessly eat people without even trying to make it look classy. They’re also better than any monster I’ve ever seen at being funny and scary at the same time.

But zombies don’t even have to be frightening in and of themselves–especially in recent years, they’re basically a stand-in for every real-life catastrophe we’re afraid of. Environmental catastrophe? Creates zombies. Evil scientist/magician/alien? Zombies. Nuclear holocaust? Comes with a side of zombies.

And they’re enormously flexible. Once upon a time, a zombie was just a magically reanimated corpse that had to obey its re-animator’s every wish. There was already plenty of scope for horror, but then Night of the Living Dead happened, and now zombies come in decomposing, flesh-eating hordes. So film-makers and book writers like to use them to create all kinds of realistic disaster scenarios without letting things get too real.

And herein lies the true beauty of zombies: they are never the primary threat. Sure, they’re scary and make for a few good knife fights, but the real monsters in every zombie story are the humans. Even if humans aren’t directly responsible for the zombie virus–which they are in many stories–their bad decisions and inability to work together always cause 90 percent of the conflict. Watch any episode of The Walking Dead and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

No, those shuffling, moaning corpses aren’t all that dangerous by themselves; they’re just a catalyst for making stories about the monsters all humans, of every age and culture, fear most: other humans.

Plus, when was the last time a zombie bored you with his evil monologuing?


Nerdish Musings

Aldy’s Nerd Blog 2: Age of Adulthood

Mae Govannen, mellyn nin!

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting a lot lately. I’ve encountered a number of life changes over the past two months. Without going into details, I’m having to become an adult rather fast. New apartment, new job, the whole shebang. And acting like an adult is shockingly time-consuming. I hope to start posting regularly again now, but my posts will look a little different.

The Fandom of the Month format has been a lot of fun for a long time, but I think it’s time to retire it. My reasons are twofold: First, some months are busier for me than others. As a result, some “fandoms of the month” get more attention than others, which doesn’t seem quite fair. For example, I posted a lot about Star Wars in May, but the poor superheroes only got about three posts in June. It’s not that I like Star Wars any better than superhero movies, it’s just that I was away from my home laptop, state, and/or country for most of that month and didn’t have time to write.

Second, and I really hate to admit this….I’m running out of fandoms. I like a lot of nerdy things, but after two and a half years of trying to highlight a different fandom every month, I am nearing the bottom of the barrel. If I keep going at this rate, I’ll end up posting about – *shudder* – anime!

I also enjoy lots of things that don’t fit neatly into a fandom, as you may have noticed. I like writing movie and book reviews,, and it’s hard to find a place for those on this blog. Or at least it has been, until now. From now on, I’m going to take a somewhat looser approach to blogging. Instead of sticking with one fandom for a whole month, I’ll blog about whatever nerdy thing I’m most currently interested in – whether it’s a 100-year-old book of poetry, a 50-year-old TV show, or the latest Marvel blockbuster. I’ll also do a few posts about nerd culture itself, since that’s something that’s always interested me. And in August and September, I will be taking a fangirl’s tour of the UK, so expect to see some reports about all the awesomeness I encounter.

Anyway, I hope nobody is too disappointed by the change! Don’t worry, there will still be lots of silly lists and long rants about why X movie/book/show/album cover is the BEST THING EVER and why X thing about it bugs me regardless. I’m just mixing things up a bit.

As always, stay tuned!

Nerdish Musings

Fictional Couples Are the Best

It’s Valentine’s Day. Siiiiiiggghhhhh….

This is the most annoying, divisive holiday on the planet. People who are in love (and aren’t too cynical) like it because it gives them an excuse to be romantic with their significant other. Florists, candy makers, and greeting card companies LOVE it because it gives them an excuse to market their products more aggressively than at any other time of year.

Everyone else hates it. I’m part of “everyone else,” so today tends to bring out my misanthropic side. However, I am trying very hard not to be cynical. Love is, after all, a thing worth celebrating, and, to a certain extent, so are chocolate hearts.

So, in an effort to bring a little bit of positivity to this day, here are a few happy couples that don’t nauseate me–largely because they’re not real, but still. Happy Valentine’s Day from:

1. Eowyn and Faramir

They’re both awesome characters separately, but together? Perfection.


2. Ten and Rose

“Don’t tell Amy and Rory or Eleven and River, but WE’RE the best couple on this show.”


3. Han and Leia

Princess + scruffy-looking nerf herder = the truest of true love.


4. Wash and Zoe

They were the most happily-married couple ever seen on telly. RIP, Wash.


5. Remus and Tonks

Lupin > Jacob. Tonks >>>> Bella. They weren’t in the movies enough.


6. Dean and Baby

Just kidding…kind of. She IS the most important woman in his life, though.


Here’s hoping all you readers find a valentine as wonderful as these characters did.


Nerdish Musings

2015: The Year of the Nerd

Happy New Year, everyone! (A day late.)

It’s 2015 already! And we all know what that means: we are officially living in the future! No flying cars yet, but at least we have a new Star Wars movie to look forward to, not to mention another round of Marvel superheroes and a new set of conventions on the calendar. Friends, it’s a good time to be a nerd.

I usually don’t write down my New Year’s resolutions, because they tend to be overly ambitious and lead to deep depression come February. But this year I’ll make one exception: I resolve, in 2015, to take better care of this blog. I resolve to post something here once a day, barring emergencies and Internet malfunctions. And I resolve to start up my Twitter account again, so that more people may possibly find this blog. (My handle is @aldythenerd, by the way.) Now that’s not too crazy, is it?

So, to keep myself accountable, here’s a preliminary schedule of fandoms I’ll be covering for the next six months. They are subject to change (and suggestions!), but for now, here’s what to expect:

January – The Month of Sherlock
February – The Month of Miscellaneous Science Fiction
March – The Month of Supernatural
April – The Month of Shakespeare (& Friends)
May – The Month of Star Wars
June – The Month of Superheroes

Tune in tomorrow for my first fandom post of 2015! Especially if you’re a Sherlockian.



monthly fandom, Nerdish Musings

All the Merry Fandoms!

Well, it’s December 2 already, which means it’s high time I introduced the fandom of the month. But for December, I’ve decided to change things up a bit.

Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year in most of the English-speaking world. It’s such an important (and emotionally-loaded) day in our culture that it tends to crop up rather a lot in fiction. Only the most serious and serialized TV shows can go for long without airing a Christmas episode, and many movies and novels spend a great deal of time depicting celebrations of Christmas (or a thinly-veiled substitute). For some reason, it often takes on special significance in fantasy and sci-fi. Maybe it’s because of the holiday’s strong roots in pagan and Christian mythology, or because of all the quirky traditions that go along with those roots, or perhaps because many people associate it with the wonder and imagination of childhood. Some authors use it as a fun, nostalgic break in the action; others like to milk the dark side of the holiday for all it’s worth. Either way, Christmas and the fandoms seem to get along quite well together.

So this month, to help us all get into the holiday spirit, I’ll be looking at all the different ways my fandoms celebrate Christmas. There will be episode and book highlights, and I may also provide some recipes, shopping items, etc. to add a little nerdiness to your merry-making.



Stay tuned!


monthly fandom, Nerdish Musings

LOTR and the Harry Potter Seal of Approval

So, today’s the last day of National Banned Books Week here in the U.S., which is always a fun way to celebrate the utter failure of censorship to stop people from reading good books (and sometimes bad ones).

Fun fact: The Lord of the Rings is on the American Library Association’s list of “banned and challenged books.” Apparently in 2001, some folks decided to burn it and other Tolkien works outside Christ Community Church in Alamagordo, New Mexico. It has also been banned in some Christian schools over the years. Why? Because it’s a Satanic book, of course!

I like to call this sort of thing “the Harry Potter seal of approval.” Some people just can’t handle the use of magic in literature, even if it’s in a completely fantastical setting and not at all based on real-life witchcraft. They sometimes overreact to the point of burning the book to make a statement. And as in the case of Harry Potter, these people always end up doing absolutely nothing to hinder the popularity of the book. At this point, if you wanted to burn every Tolkien book in existence, you’d need a heck of a lot of gasoline.

Satanism might be a common accusation for fantasy books, but it’s a particularly ridiculous one to level at The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic his entire life, and he based much of the mythology of Middle Earth on biblical stories and imagery (see the Fall of Numenor in The Silmarillion for the most obvious example). And although his writings do feature wizards who cast magic spells and so forth, he portrays them as cosmic beings who are closer to angels than anything else.

But hey, now I can say I read a banned book for Banned Books Week!  And if you, like me, have made it a goal to pick up each of the books on the ALA list of banned classics, The Lord of the Rings is a much easier place to start than, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses.