A tale of waking up from geek dreams to geek reality

The day the ship came from the other world, Fox was bringing in the last of the fall harvest. He tossed a handful of ripe squash into one of the woven baskets that stood at intervals around his field, then stood up, cracked his back, and surveyed his work. Plenty of veggies for winter.

A young man tore through the village, breaking the silence with excited shouts. He was screaming what sounded like nonsense — some kind of gigantic craft had materialized off the coast. It had enormous white wings, and many mouths from which smoke poured. The elders were down by the shore now, debating whether to go out for a closer look.

Fox followed the young man out of the village, through the woods and down to the cliffs by the shore, where the elders stood debating intently. And sure enough, far out in the mist sat a craft the size of a city. Smoke poured upward from small openings around its hull, which bristled with long spiked beams draped in winglike structures.

“I’m telling you,” said one of the elders, whose name was River, “This is a great bird from Heaven.”

“Are you blind? It’s clearly not a bird,” said another, whose name was Arrow. “It’s a boat of the gods. They’ve come to visit us.”

“You are both blind,” said the oldest, whose name was Raven. “While you’ve stood there arguing, I’ve carefully watched this craft. Look closer.”

The men did as Raven said, but they couldn’t make out any new details — just the small portholes, the rising smoke, and the vast wings.

Raven shook his head. “Your eyes are unsharp,” he said. “There are men on the decks. Ordinary men, like us. This is a boat. A big boat, yes. Bigger than we can build. But it is crewed by men. We will row out and speak with them.”

River and Arrow looked at each other, then at Fox. They shook their heads. “We will not go,” said Arrow.

“I will go,” said Fox.

Raven and Fox made their way down the craggy path to the shore, and untied a canoe from the rocks. They pushed it out into the lapping surf, hopped in, and paddled it far out into the water, closer to the alien craft. Fox felt like trembling, but he mastered his fear. He looked at Raven’s wrinkled face and saw no emotion, neither fear nor excitement — only sharp-eyed alertness, like the man’s namesake.

As they pulled up closer to the craft, Fox could see that the old man was right. The ship’s sides were made of wood — thousands upon thousands of planks, nailed together tightly in towering walls. The smoke poured from small fires behind the craft’s windows. And its wings were made of cloth —simple woven cloth, like that of blankets.

And on the decks stood men — pale men in strange bright clothing, who gathered at the railing to stare down at the tiny craft below, and the two brave men who crewed it.

“These men are dangerous,” said Raven. “They will tell us many things, but take none of it on faith. We will see whether they can be trusted.”

Fox nodded as a rope ladder dropped down from the deck of the ship. Raven caught it, then held it firm and began to climb. Fox followed him, ascending into the belly of the alien ship.

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2

I grew up a massive sci-fi and fantasy geek. I loved every starship, alien, magic spell and monstrous race I could get my hands on — and I devoured everything I could find about all of them.

Most of this was back in the pre-internet era, which meant I spent uncounted hours in used bookstores and gaming shops, paging through Starlog and Cinefex, buying hardcover creature encyclopedias with my summer-job money, videotaping episodes and late-night specials off the Sci-Fi channel, marking my calendar for the release dates of every movie and TV show involving aliens or monsters.

This all culminated in my mid-teens, in an absolutely orgasmic obsession with everything Star Wars. From the first time I watched the original trilogy, I knew I’d stumbled on a universe of almost inconceivable depth and complexity —to a twelve-year-old, especially — and the more I learned about it, the more it aroused my curiosity.

Here was a gritty, messy universe full of rogue bounty hunters and alien crime syndicates; nomadic desert wanderers in churning mobile factories; ancient rivalries and elaborate systems of meditation; bizarre alphabets and languages, and wildly colorful cultures and clothing, and quests on far-flung planets, and titanic battles among the stars.

I watched the movies more times than I could count, obviously — but I also watched the documentaries about them, and the surreal spinoff movies. I read the novels of the “expanded universe,” and collected the action figures, laminating and organizing the cutout cards from the backs of the boxes. I bought encyclopedias of alien races, planets, galactic history and spacecraft, and scrutinized the diagrams and blueprints and backstories.

Even my friends started to make fun of me, a little, because I knew things like the name and backstory of that seal-like alien thug in the bar in Mos Eisley, who’s onscreen for literally two seconds total. I could recite, on cue, the mathematical probability of successfully navigating an asteroid field. They chuckled, but I didn’t care. This was my world, and I loved it.

But like any traveler in a fictional universe, I eventually started to find the edges of it. Like the protagonist of The Truman Show, I sailed to the farthest reaches of my world — and bumped into cheap painted walls.

Star Wars fandom has only grown since then, and I’m sure the amount of encyclopedic data on it has multiplied, too. My problem was never a lack of data, though — it was how slapped-together it all started to feel.

For example, I wanted to know the nature of the monster in the Death Star trash pit, in the first movie of the original trilogy. I found a place where I could look it up, and I learned that this creature was called a dianoga. It was an egg-laying invertebrate. That was all there was to know about the dianoga.

Now, I’m sure if enough people contacted the authors of a Star Wars encyclopedia and demanded more data on this mysterious creature, the authors of the next edition would come up with some other facts. How long is the dianoga’s gestation period? Oh, it’s — uh, how’s twelve months sound? Yeah, sure, it’s twelve months. On and on — more sketches and facts made up on the fly; and the more data people tacked on, the more flat and false it all started to feel to me.

I’d plunged into the Star Wars universe’s furthest depths and found nothing of substance there. It started to feel like playing a beautifully designed video game — as long as I stuck to the designated paths, the world was lush and rich. But the instant I stepped off the map and headed for the distant mountains, I bumped into cardboard theater scenery, and saw just how rickety that universe really was.

I thought back to that moment near the beginning of the first Star Wars movie, when Luke walks out behind his aunt’s and uncle’s farmhouse and watches the twin suns setting over the desert. That haunting minor-key theme swells in the background, and you see Luke as you won’t ever see him again: as a regular dude just like you and me, looking off into the infinite without the slightest real idea of what’s out there, thinking: “Bring me that horizon.” The universe had felt so big to me at that moment — but lately, it felt so cheap and small.

It’d be a long time before I rediscovered the old feeling of magic— in a place I never would’ve expected.

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3

The aliens looked something like men, but they were not men. Some said they were descended from a distant race of humans, spawned on some faraway world — but Qin knew the truth: their race was older than the race of men, and they would rule the earth once they’d exterminated the humans.

Few had seen the aliens up close, but Qin had visited the battlegrounds, and had gotten a fairly good look at them, flying in and out of the carnage on their strange mounts, howling and chittering in their guttural tongue.

Today, though, as he surveyed the farms around the city, Qin didn’t see a hint of them.

“How long has it been this quiet?” he asked the captain of the guard.

“Three months,” said the captain.

“Not a single attack?”

“Not a sound. Nothing.”

“They must be planning something,” Qin said.

“Perhaps,” said the captain.

The predators had come out of the wilderness several years ago — descended on farms and villages without warning, scalping and butchering the men, kidnapping the women and children. The army had sent out raiding parties to destroy them, of course; but by the time the soldiers arrived, the invaders had disappeared, as if into thin air — until they suddenly appeared in another place, far away, and attacked again.

Their bodies were, on the whole, man-like — two arms, two legs, one head — but they were enormous, nearly twice as tall as a man, and covered in many-colored fur; apart from their faces, which were taut-skinned and hairless, and tattooed with strange markings. Their skulls were grotesquely elongated, reaching back between their shoulders in a cone-like shape. Their teeth were razor-sharp; their eyes and noses no more than slits in their faces.

Generals had tried to communicate with the predators, but they seemed to speak no earthly language — or to have any interest in talking with humans. They wanted only human pelts and bones — and women, presumably for bizarre experiments that Qin tried not to think about.

“Perhaps they have returned,” the captain said. “To wherever they came from.”

“Or perhaps,” said Qin, “They have found easier pickings.”

Qin was right, though he couldn’t have known it. The predators had warped out en masse to invade a faraway world — one so distant that its inhabitants didn’t even know Qin’s world existed.

When the predators attacked the other world, though, its inhabitants would write of them in clear, unambiguous terms, which made it clear these were the same aliens who had invaded Qin’s world centuries before —nightmares with elongated heads and tiny slits for eyes, who wore human pelts as trophies and scarred their own faces and sharpened their teeth to points.

The faraway world would come to fear them, too, just as Qin’s world had. And unlike Qin’s world, the other world would not survive. The predators would conquer it, devour it, scatter its survivors to the farthest reaches.

That world was known as Rome, and it called the predators Huns.

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4

I got into history in a very odd way.

I’d deconverted from the Young-Earth Creationist Christianity in which I was raised, and was trying to get my head around the fact that the human race has been around for 200,000 years — which meant I had a lot of backstory in this universe to get caught up on.

I started googling one afternoon, and soon found myself reading research papers on things like Australopithecus afarensis and the Afroasiatic Urheimat and Kebaran culture. I wrote down the main points, and soon my page of notes had turned into a ten-page timeline chronicling mankind’s progress from savanna apehood to the first cities.

A lot of it, I realized, read just like fantasy and sci-fi. Our ancestors battled primeval monsters, walked with gods, perfected spells and dream-quests, invented advanced tech that seemed like magic, and embarked on missions into the unknown, to seek out new life and new civilizations, where they often discovered bizarre alien races with strange customs, languages, weapons and physical features.

It’s not just every bit as weird as sci-fi and fantasy — in almost every case, real history is by far the weirdest of all. If you’ve been sold on geek subcultures as primal founts of weirdness, you have been lied to. You are being cheated out of your money’s worth, as I was for a long time.

History is where the real aliens are. Tell me any story from sci-fi or fantasy, and I guarantee you — as someone who’s obsessively devoured sci-fi and fantasy for most of his life — that I can top it with a true story from history. I will lay money on that bet, right now.

One of the best things about history, though, is that it doesn’t have that slapped-together carboard quality. When a certain area snagged my interest and pulled me deeper — the warlords of Sumer and Akkad, for instance, or the forest rituals of the mysterious Etruscans — I found not cheaply painted theater backgrounds, but vast archives of artifacts and primary sources, and decades of intensive research by dedicated experts.

Look at a picture of a character from the Star Wars universe, for example, and you’ll see, say, a bounty hunter in ornate armor, with a belt covered in little pouches and a robe draped in elaborate folds. Where’s the armor come from? There’s probably some backstory about it, sure. Why’s the robe folded exactly that way? What’s in each of those little pouches, and why? You’re less likely to find backstory about those things — but all right, someone could make it up. It’d be off-the-cuff and slapped-together, but it could be contrived.

Check out a picture of a person from actual history, though, and you’re in a whole different kind of territory. Why’s her headdress carved with deer and boars? Ah, see, those are the totems of her clan; the boar symbolizes courage in her culture, and the deer dates back to an empire 600 years earlier, which has become popular again in the art of this woman’s age.

Same thing for the way her robe is folded, the charms on her necklace, the buckle of her belt, the clasps of her shoes — every single one of those things is a branching-off point into other tribes, other languages, other struggles; all of which involve thousands of real people who each had goals and dreams and life stories as rich and complex as yours. The depth has no end. It goes on forever. Your most obsessive geekiness will never even come close to the bottom of it.

That’s why there are Star Wars geeks — but history professors: You can spend years of your life learning everything there is to know about a sci-fi or fantasy universe — but you can spend your entire adult life obsessing about just one aspect of just one particular historical culture during just one period of their long history; and after decades of research on that topic, you’ll finally retire, admitting how much work on it still remains to be done.

I’m not talking about dusting off tiny pieces of pottery. I’m talking about questions like, “How do you do the once-famous dance known as the Sogdian Whirl?” or “How did Minoan bullfighting acrobats manage not to get killed?” or “Did the Carthaginians really bake their children alive?” or “What was the sacred plant known as haoma, and what kinds of visions did it induce?”

Start researching a question like this, and it can swallow you whole.

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5

Want epic wars between alien civilizations? Check out the Greco-Persian wars, or the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico. Want magic spells and battles between wizards? Check out the Zoroastrian Magi or the Late-Egyptian mystery cults. Want first-contact stories between advanced races and primitive worlds? Check out the first Columbian exchange, or the first meetings between Europeans and the Manchu empire.

I’m not talking about the dull, dusty ways you had to read about these things in school. I’m talking about the ways they really happened — which are probably nothing like what you’ve heard.

Want bounty hunters or giant monsters or laser cannons or nomads of the desert or mystics of the swamp? All those things are in history — often in the same sweeping real-world operas. Message me in the comments section and I’ll recommend true stories about whatever your geeky little heart desires.

Because in my heart, I’m a geek too. I love aliens and space battles and advanced technology and new life and new civilizations just as much as the next lifelong nerd. I’ve just found out firsthand that history is the real raw, uncut, pure stuff.

The real purpose of sci-fi and fantasy isn’t to spice up reality — it’s to borrow from it, and tone the stories down to a level we can digest. Real history is often so bizarre that it’s hard to process, so sci-fi and fantasy take those true stories, cast them in simpler, fictional terms, and place them in faraway kingdoms or galaxies so we can say, “Man, that’s so much weirder than the real world.”

No. The real world is weirder. And much more in-depth.

And best of all, you don’t have to roleplay it, because you’re living in it.

This world is your fantasy alien kingdom. Welcome home.

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