AboutSF at Nerd Nite - Lawrence

This past Wednesday, the Lawrence chapter of Nerd Nite put on a spectacular round of presentations devoted to a franchise near and dear to (or disliked by) many in the science fiction community: Star Wars. With The Force Awakens coming to theaters in less than a week(!), many have been chomping at the bit and looking at both prospective new installments, prognosticating what’s to come, and looking back on the older films, once again assessing their place in SF and movie history.

I was invited to come speak at Nerd Nite XLIV: A Nerd Awakens in my capacity as AboutSF Volunteer Coordinator, and it was an absolute blast. Perhaps surprisingly, the night’s programming merely used Star Wars as a launch point to discuss and consider other topics, which is just as well. As a topic, Star Wars is perhaps done to death at this point, even as there is always more to be said and written about the movies and connective stories, especially with new movies on the way (and I say this as a fan of the movies!).

In truth, any grand narrative will always incorporate concepts from other stories and disciplines, other ideas worth considering, so it made perfect sense to capitalize on Star Wars as a hub from which extended other topics to be explored, and they were explored ably by my fellow presenters at Nerd Nite XLIV, Matt Jacobson and Alex Ford.

In “Expanding the Universe: Kitbashing as Three-Dimensional Fan Fiction,” Jacobson introduced everyone to the history of model design and construction on the original Star Wars films, from the concept stage to the final models present in the movies, before introducing us to the fan community of model builders who make their own replicas of ships and other objects from Star Wars (and how monumentally expensive this hobby can be). From there, he narrowed down to the practice of “kitbashing,” where fans distort the original designs by making their own “bashed” new versions. Certainly, the high point of Jacobson’s presentation was the display of his own kitbashed creations, culminating in an award-winning display of two AT-ATs caught in an, um, compromised position. Jacobson’s premise of kitbashing as fan fiction was fundamentally strong, and the creativity it takes to start with the iconic design of, say, a TIE Fighter and then bash it into a new design that tells its own story is impressive indeed.

Meanwhile, Alex Ford’s presentation “’You Don’t Know the Power of the Dark Side’: The Mysterious 24% of the Universe We Call Dark Matter” was an illuminating experience, exposing those in attendance (especially myself) to the actual science and theory behind what dark matter is, how it works, and why it’s there. As is the case with many cutting edge scientific experiments and investigations, much of what we could know about dark matter is still obscured (slight pun there, sorry). Still, it was oddly relieving to learn what was really going on with dark matter, after being exposed to so much “science” about dark matter in various SF stories – which, as we know, can sometimes enjoy a gleefully “free” relationship with science itself.

When the time came for my own presentation – “’I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing’: Science Fiction vs. Star Wars” – I’ll confess to being nervous, on the heels of such laudatory presentations like Jacobson’s and Ford’s, but the crowd at Nerd Nite XLIV was generous and friendly, and stepping up on stage turned into one of the easiest, most pleasant experiences I’ve had in my life. I found an intelligent, aware audience willing to hear the surprisingly complicated relationship history of Star Wars and the world of science fiction. We pondered the questions of whether Star Wars “ruined” science fiction for the public, like many professionals and academics have claimed, and turned to questions of science fiction’s definitions and histories, and how hard it is to separate ourselves from science fiction when we make claims to what it is, was, or will (and should) be.

All told, I considered Nerd Nite XLIV to be a rousing, enlightening experience, and judging from those who approached me afterwards to talk to me about my topic (and, of course, disagree with me), it seems safe to say that many people in Lawrence have strong, valid thoughts about science fiction. I even got some tipoffs to strange, historically overlooked material that I hope to share with you all on AboutSF soon!