Ryan Britt is a guy with a wealth of geeky knowledge, yes, but he also comes with a wealth of love for most of the franchises, books, shows, and films he discusses in his new book: Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths. Each of the essays in this book takes on various geeky properties from a unique perspective: a slightly twisted, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but wholly sincere angle.
However, what’s refreshing is that he recognizes that “if there’s one thing I feel is important about love, it is understanding the deeply flawed characteristics of things you love, so you can better understand yourself, and how best to enjoy yourself.”
And that’s exactly how Britt tackles Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, and many other properties in the 14 essays that comprise this book. We can love these things, but we can also recognize (and love) their flaws. Nerds obsess and pick at minutiae. Britt picks at these flaws like a scab and then explores the gaping wound that’s left behind.
And it’s fascinating.
Some of the essays are more thought-provoking than others, and – indeed – “Luke Skywalker Can’t Read” is the most compelling chapter in the book. I guarantee you won’t be able to watch the movies the same way again. In short, Britt makes the argument that nearly everyone in the Star Wars universe is illiterate, and the evil Empire is what awaits us as a society if we continue on a path toward ignorance.
If you’re reading the Wikipedia entry about a novel, instead of reading a novel, or you’re getting bent out of shape about a friend’s tweet about social injustice, without really knowing what they’re talking about, I’d say we’re only a few centuries away from someone building a Death Star in secret and a whole populace randomly accepting the mass genocide of smarty-pants wizards. Yoda tells us the path to the Dark Side includes anger, fear, and aggression, but I think he forgot to mention ignorance.
Every essay in this slim book is worth reading (maybe twice), but “The Birds, the Bees, and Barbarella” and “All You McFlys: A Back to the Future Theory of Everything” are standout entries.
I caught up with Ryan Britt recently and was able to ask some really burning questions. Now, I’m not normally one to brag, but the Q part of the following Q&A was apparently good enough for Ryan to profess his love to me over email and proclaim, “I have not (and will not) get better questions about the book than these!”
Maybe interviews cause him to get overly enthusiastic or maybe he’s prone to hyperbole, but either way, that’s getting tattooed on my arm… or at least going on my LinkedIn profile. You better believe it.
GeekDad: It seems like you have a wide-ranging (and well-rounded) interest in the geeky arts. How did you settle on the franchises and topics to include in this book?
Ryan Britt: Mostly I selected topics (or franchises to discuss) based on what I considered to be things I was either really used to writing about or topics I was very interested in. I also tried to think about the kind of book I would have wanted to read about “geeky truths,” if I wasn’t a writer. So, I guess I wrote a book toward that reader: an alternate version of me. I also wanted to talk about stuff that’s always been popular and interesting to people who like these sorts of things, which means Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek, and dinosaurs! The superhero essay, I think, was added last, because suddenly I was concerned that you can’t have geeky truths without superheroes! But the original (short) version of that essay was also something I’d written years before, so I was really happy to already have a great angle to work with.
A lot of this was picking stuff where I thought I had a really solid, new angle on various books, movies, or phenomena. In going through my online essays for material, I’d look for that: the sharp, sometimes weird, angle. If an older piece was well written, BUT was too generic in its points, then I wouldn’t bother adapting it for this book. But, if I found something that I felt had a sexy hook, I’d consider it. I mean, I would do a book just about Star Trek or Star Wars, but I think that might get old, and also it would be marketed and published differently.
GeekDad: Why footnotes? Were they a hard sell for the publisher?
RB: I think footnotes are hilarious. I think they can simulate what it’s like when you’re talking to someone and they pause the conversation to go on a nutty tangent. But, in a book, footnotes make that part of the conversation more efficient, so it feels less like a nutty tangent. Plus, they can be ways to frame jokes differently. I’m particularity proud of one joke I make about the 2009 Star Trek being fueled by “real nostalgia,” only to have the footnote turn around and call it “fake nostalgia.”
GeekDad: The title might seem a bit like clickbait, but you in fact deliver. That essay is early in the book, and I found it to be the most compelling. How many times did you watch the films before it dawned on you that everyone in the galaxy might be illiterate?
RB: This question is really asking me how many times I’ve seen the films. I see what you’re doing here. How many times have I seen ALL the Star Wars movies. I get it. Nice. You want to spill it. I mean, I’m such a die-hard Star Wars fan that I even saw Attack of the Clones more than 5 times IN THE THEATER. How many times have I see the classic movies? Return of the Jedi was my go-to movie to watch as a child if I could pick anything. “Oh, I’m home sick today, I think I’ll lay on the couch and watch Return of the Jedi.” We’re dealing with likely hundreds of times I’ve seen Return of the Jedi. When you consider how many seasons there are of Dancing With the Stars, and how many people watch that, I really don’t feel bad about how many times I’ve seen the Star Wars movies.
The illiteracy theory (which is really more of a thought experiment) came about by making a joke out loud. Like many things in my life, that joke grew into an essay.
GeekDad: If literacy were more of a priority in the Star Wars universe, would that have prevented the Empire from rising to power?
RB: Yes. Completely. Yes. There is something broken with characters in big fantasy epics. They just aren’t as creative and as moved by art as we are in real life. (For the most part.) If people had awesome novels in the Star Wars universe, they wouldn’t have needed to wait around for “chosen ones” and all that crap. Fiction, poetry – hell, good journalism – inspires people. Writing and reading is what makes human beings so vibrant. I love Luke Skywalker, of course, and I love Star Wars. But, yeah, I’m stating outright that Star Wars is an (accidental) cautionary tale for what happens when people don’t give a s–t about writing books. I mean, look at the trailer for The Force Awakens! The Jedi have become myths again! Maybe Luke should have written a memoir? Guess he can’t?! Guess he won’t! I guess he’s front! That’s why I know my life is out of luck (the Force), fool!
GeekDad: What is the current generation’s Barbarella? In other words, how can I avoid talking to my kids about the birds and the bees and get them interested in sci-fi at the same time?
RB: Starship Troopers? No. Even that’s too “old.” The 5th Element? Again. Too old, probably. You know, I think I’m going to stick to what I said in the back of the book: no one has remade Barbarella for a reason.
RB: I dressed as Marty McFly from the first movie, but right before he puts the vest on! So, we’re talking a rust-colored red t-shirt, a checkered button-up over that, suspenders, and faded jeans. I was doing a performance at Housing Works for Lit Crawl that night and the vast majority of my publishing/author friends were just like “You look nice…” They just thought I was dressed weird. After that, I hit up a showing of the first two movies in a little bar in Bushwick with my roommate. She was dressed as the leather-jacket “something inconspicuous” Marty from Back to the Future II. At New York Comic Con, everyone was the vest Marty; no one was the leather jacket Marty. In Brooklyn, everyone does the leather jacket Marty. (Even when it’s not Back to the Future day.)
GeekDad: Do you have any geeky blind spots? Shows, books, or franchises for which you just haven’t had time/interest?
RB: One has to be really, really careful about how they answer these kinds of questions, but it’s a good question and an important one. At the beginning of the book, I try to have a few disclaimers about how I tend not to fit in sometimes with other geeks, but that I imagine more people feel that way than they admit. That being said, my big “geek” blind spot is fairly big: Game of Thrones. I never got into the books, and for some reason I can’t get into the TV show. To be honest, despite loving Barbarella, I didn’t get into sci-fi and fantasy for excessive violence and near porn-level sex scenes. I do, however, love creating fake rumors about Game of Thrones!
I am a little irritated by the excessive amount of “grittiness” in popular genre shows. Like Daredevil. It was good, but that “realism” at a certain point doesn’t seem real because it’s so crafted to a certain aesthetic. I guess it’s why I love Doctor Who; it has wit and charm and doesn’t care about being or getting “real.”
GeekDad: Who’s your Doctor? Who’s your favorite Doctor? Those aren’t necessarily the same question.
RB: My Doctor is David Tennant. No question about it. David Tennant’s Doctor saved my soul and my life. And so, yes. He’s still my favorite Doctor, too.
That being said, if I was one of the Doctors, like if my personality was scanned and put into one of those Doctors for “closest” match, I would be Peter Capaldi.
GeekDad: Who’s your Captain, and why is it Jean-Luc Picard?
RB: I like to say my Captain is JANEWAY!!! This is mostly a joke about how Janeway drinks coffee, you know, like a NORMAL PERSON. Seriously, Janeway is really underrated. Kate Mulgrew is such a badass, and Janeway is such a fun character who gets more interesting the more you go back and watch Star Trek: Voyager. In fact, you could make an argument that all the leads of all the Star Trek shows are really, truly, shockingly good actors who are playing really interesting characters. Avery Brooks’s Captain Sisko is probably the most nuanced Star Trek captain, which means there should probably be more novels about him than there are. (I mean, Ben Sisko’s son Jake is also a successful novelist in the future, so that’s awesome.) But even Scott Bakula has some awesome moments on Enterprise. Really!
This one is more complicated than the Doctor question though, because the Doctor is such a loner, and it’s easy for anyone to identify and project themselves onto that. With the Star Trek captains it’s way harder, because not all of us are leaders in that special way, nor do all of us want to be led. I guess Captain Kirk is the guy who I probably am on most days, but Picard is the person I wish I was. However, many of us, without knowing, are probably exactly like Bakula’s Captain Archer, which is to say, fairly nice, straightforward, and competent enough to get the job done, but not like over-the-top-special enough to get renewed for a 5th season.
RB: Whatever happens, I just don’t want it to be about killing in outer space. I can’t handle a really violent Star Trek again. Yes, Kirk punches people and beats the s–t out of Khan with a piece of Styrofoam and all that in the old show, but it’s not ALL that is happening in those old episodes. Could the J.J. Abrams versions of Star Trek allow for “City on the Edge of Forever” or “All Our Yesterdays”? It’s good that Star Trek is going back to TV, because the new show should attempt to adapt the aesthetics of the older shows.
It sounds so negative to say what it shouldn’t be, instead of what it should be, but there’s all this chatter about how television is these days and how great it is, but personally, I’m really tired of shows with big arcs that you’re supposed to binge watch. It makes having individual episodes almost impossible to discern. I love Battlestar Galactica, but it’s tough to pick a favorite episode because it’s so interconnected. Deep Space Nine had this problem toward the end of its run, too, and of course Enterprise suffered from having a season long arc with the Xindi thing. But the original series, The Next Generation, and Voyager are all cool “sci-fi brain-teaser of the week” episodes. You can watch any random episode (for the most part) of (most) any Star Trek show and you can get it. And that’s wonderful. I’d love to see that kind of self-contained format again. Star Trek at its best is so satisfying when each story ends. Please, please, no big long arcs!
GeekDad: Which Hobbit are you?
RB: Merry or Pippin. Whichever one is drunkest at the moment.
GeekDad: You’re put in charge of developing a Star Wars show for Netflix. What’s it about?
RB: Rogue Squadron. No question. I’d look at those old Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston books and all the great comic books and see what could be used. I’d cast some really hot British guy as Wedge, too. I think everyone loves Jedi Knights and smugglers and stuff, but let’s do a space pilot show! Kind of like Battlestar did, but also like that ’90s show Space: Above and Beyond. You could also set it during a different era: a whole show about Oscar Issac and his space pilot friends from the new movie. In all seriousness, though, stories about a fighter squadron in outer space already sounds like it should be a TV show. Unlike my Star Trek pleas, my fictional Rogue Squadron show would totally have big long arcs.
GeekDad: Is this book the first step on the road to world domination?
RB: I guess I view it less as world domination, and instead as, like, submitting myself to the whims of the world. Everyone’s fun opinions about geeky stuff are one thing when spoken aloud in a bar or at a convention. It takes a special kind of fool to want to write all that stuff down in a book.
But, in truth, yes.