According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nerd” is a “mildly derogatory” term that emerged in 1950s America to describe someone who’s “socially inept.” Today, the dictionary allows, it can also describe someone who embraces “a highly technical interest.”
While listening to the confident sweep of Maya Phillips’s Nerd: Adventures in Fandom from This Universe to the Multiverse, I kept returning to the title. Does the mildly derogatory “nerd” still have any meaning, I wondered, in a world where fantasy franchises have consumed the box office and where the fandoms Phillips embraces are avidly explored across the media spectrum? It seems like nerds have become, well, pretty cool.
Then, last night, I had a moment where I realized I was wearing an Ewok onesie, reading The Two Towers, and texting my friends about Star Trek wall calendars while my wife lay beside me reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Nerds.
Not until the very end of Nerd does Phillips explicitly engage with the idea that anyone might question the use of her time to dive deep on anime, comics, and novels about invented worlds. The bulk of Nerd is a series of chapters exploring weighty topics — among them religion, mental health, and race — through the lens of the author’s life. In each, Phillips explains how various imagined universes intersected with her own, providing inspiration and food for thought.
Chapter five, for example, is titled “The Slytherin Firebender of Sunagakure: Self-identification with fandom, racial and national identities in space westerns, and the persistent fantasy of manifest destiny.” It opens during “Christian existence” class in Phillips’s Catholic high school; develops into an examination of the fantasy-universe personality typology trope (Hogwarts houses, Avatar: The Last Airbender nations, Sex and the City characters); considers that phenomenon in the context of real-world signifiers like race and class; rolls back into an evocation of family road trips; and from there launches into a broader consideration of frontiers and identities in vintage westerns, Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop, Star Wars, and Firefly.
The book is so wide-ranging that it could be approached as a geography of contemporary imaginative universes, seen through the author’s individual lens. Unless you’re as well-versed as Phillips is regarding everything from Buffy to Akira, you’re bound to learn something about the fandoms you’re less familiar with. Phillips is generous in providing footholds for people with varying levels of knowledge about her subjects, but Nerd isn’t a 101: readers are expected to know offhand what a mecha is, and what “ship” means as a verb not involving transportation.
Growing up as a gen-X nerd, I scoured my local library shelves for nonfiction books about fantastic universes and found mostly hagiographies of pop filmmakers, dusty histories of Golden Age science fiction, and the occasional behind-the-scenes book. For serious pop culture analysis, I had The Parables of Peanuts and that was about it. From this perspective, it was gratifying to find that Phillips makes the occasional historical reference but isn’t bound by the past. Her emphasis is on the texts she’s encountered, and how they’ve been relevant to her life in real time.
Phillips also takes a dynamic approach to the creator-fan relationship, reflecting the potentially fraught realities of an era when J.K. Rowling can tweet retcons at whim even as her readers share their own takes on the Harry Potter canon. (Phillips and her friends, she writes, won’t entertain the Fantastic Beasts prequels as canon, nor do they credit “the Epilogue That Will Not Be Named.”) Phillips also addresses Rowling’s transphobia, about which Harry Potter’s creator is so resolutely unapologetic that any reference to her formerly ubiquitous fantasy universe is now potentially fraught.
The Nerd author narrates the audiobook herself with a confident, deliberate cadence. It’s gratifying to hear the text in her own voice, but the linear experience of an audiobook can present challenges for listeners who dip in and out. Nerd is a great listen if you have long, uninterrupted stretches of time to spend with it, but in shorter bursts, without the ability to readily flip pages, it can be challenging to hold all the threads of Phillips’s carefully crafted arguments.
Nerd constitutes a testament to the real-world power of imagined universes, and for the importance of remaining critically engaged even while meeting these stories on their own terms. “These worlds only belong to children, we’ve been told for so long, with the understanding that imagination, hope, and dreams may only survive in the innocence of childhood,” Phillips writes, “and yet, if the multiverse can teach us anything, it’s that reality is what we make it. The possibilities are endless.”
It’s a stirring sentiment, and I don’t just say that because I’m wearing a Baby Yoda onesie.