By now you should know one thing about me if nothing else: I am a big, huge, entirely unapologetic full-on nerd. I am a 46-year-old man with a wife, two children, a mortgage, a dog, a career in what I guess I can call a “transition phase,” but I have money in the bank, two cars in the driveway, and in every conceivable way I live the real actual grown-up life of a responsible adult.

I was born in Rochester New York, grew up in suburban Chicago, and in 1997 moved to the Seattle area. I have had jobs as a book editor, a photojournalist (for about three weeks), a record store manager, a janitor . . . I’ve undergone life-changing events from deaths in the family to the birth of my own children. And through all of that there might be only one thing that has remained stable and unchanging, unchallenged even by those periods of rapid social and psychological transition we all eventually go through: I love SF and fantasy and all of the various off-shoots and side-treks in orbit around them.

I’m a voracious reader of SF, fantasy, and horror books. I’ve written a few, even. I spent fifteen years of my life actually working for the company that made Dungeons & Dragons. I literally live the geek. I buy monthly comic books, and consume graphic novels and collections like there’s no tomorrow, sometimes raiding the local library for stacks of them. I collect Ace Science Fiction Doubles, and have what I lovingly refer to as a “Star Trek shrine.” Both co-exist in a single book case at the top of the stairs. Here’s a picture of it:

The Madonna CD box set is my wife’s, I promise. I grew out of Madonna years ago.

Let me take this opportunity to point out the completed plastic model kit of Deep Space Nine on top, and next to that is—yes, you’re seeing it right. Not only did I buy and eat the Star Trek movie tie-in cereal, but I saved the box. I have the Star Trek Barbie & Ken and Pez dispenser collections, mint-in-box. That plushy Khan was a Christmas gift from my son.

The blue-and-red or blue-and-white paperbacks in protective plastic bags are the Ace Doubles, one of my great loves.

Off to the side you’ll see a mighty collection of D&D and other role-playing game books, and down on the bottom left, autographed copies of Deathstalker War by Simon R. Green and The Dark Wing by Walter H. Hunt.

Geek cred established.

He hasn’t grown out of comics at least!

Now imagine my confusion when I came across this in comedian and actor Patton Oswalt’s brilliantly heartfelt and hilarious memoir Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: “Dungeons and Dragons was the game I played. All through middle school and for the first couple years of high school—until the possibility of sex hove into view. Before that, sex seemed like something for tall people who could run fast.”

At least in high school it may be true that taller faster people probably get more sex—taller faster boys, anyway, probably chasing down shorter, slower girls. But wait . . . doesn’t every dog have his day?

And literally precisely the same day I read Warren Ellis interviewed in Writers on Comics Scriptwriting: “The first comics I remember were the ones my dad brought home for me when I was four or five, things like Countdown and TV21. I saw a few of the American comics, then 2000 AD launched around my ninth birthday and that was it. I was hooked from then until my teenage years, when everyone goes through the same thing of, ‘These comics are pretty good, but that’s a girl.’ ”

We all eventually notice the opposite sex, don’t we? In the movie High Fidelity, John Cusak’s character puts it beautifully: “One moment they weren’t there—not in any form that interested us, anyway—and the next, you couldn’t miss them. They were everywhere. And they’d grown breasts.”

Which is great, honestly, but what the hell does that have to do with playing Dungeons & Dragons or reading comic books or fantasy and science fiction novels? Believe me, I also suddenly noticed that girls were everywhere and had various mysterious lady parts that drew my attention in all the creepy/cute ways that teenaged girls attract teenaged boys, but I kept reading fantasy and SF, kept playing D&D, Traveller, and Gamma World . . . why on Earth are those things mutually exclusive?

Couldn’t Warren Ellis have said, “These comics are pretty good, and that’s a girl.”?

Then it was off to the dim corners of the internet, where I found at least one more lame excuse to stop reading fantasy and science fiction. R.L. Copple responded to the comments section of Mike Duran’s blog deCOMPOSE with this sad declaration: “When I became a Christian in 1976, I stopped reading science fiction and fantasy, only listened to Christian music (but I’m sure I drank milk from a secular cow . . . for you Steve Taylor fans), primarily because I didn’t want negative influences in my life. As I later revealed, some of the theology in . . . Christian songs and writings were probably more damaging than any secular message I could have received, and which I could have identified more easily as ‘wrong.’ ”

I won’t even try to list the people I number among my friends who are active D&D players, and writers, editors, and avid readers of fantasy and science fiction who are also devoutly religious, from evangelical Christians through Mormons, to Catholics and Jews. I’m not a preacher or theologian but I don’t really see why faith and fantasy have to be mutually exclusive.

Well . . . maybe a bigger subject than can be tackled here.

And this weird “I grew out of it,” thing ranges from the wistful, as with Patton Oswalt, to the downright mean-spirited.

Writing just after the death of D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, home improvement blogger Tom Quixote threw this grenade: “I stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was a sophomore in High School (right around the time I saw my first vagina). But I was surprised to read that Gygax still played Dungeons and Dragons weekly until his death. I guess some people have things that they never grow out of.”

What strange, memory- or personality-erasing alien vagina could have that effect on a young man? If anything, wouldn’t that make you more likely to want to explore dark, cramped, arcane places of unknowable, stygian dangers?

Thanks to the ever-evolving gift that is Google, I even ran across this one, which is just bizarre: “I used to read science fiction for relaxation but a new baby, a pony and two guinea pigs has stopped that.”


That was Chris Parry, a senior lecturer in accounting and finance at University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, on his staff bio page.

I’ve had both dogs and guinea pigs, and two kids, and I still read science fiction for relaxation. Maybe it’s the pony.

Anyway, another reason not to get a pony.

Sometimes, the defectors don’t even know why they’ve defected. Marie Arana in her Washington Post essay “Great Sci Fi for People Who Think They Don’t Like Sci Fi” wrote: “Funny, how I used to love science fiction as a kid. But something happened at about age 15—maybe it was the demands of school, or maybe it was the fact that I came of age in the late ’60s, when every day was so ‘out there’ that life became stranger than fiction. In any case, from one week to the next I stopped reading sci fi.”

At least the thrust of her essay was her desire to come back into the fold.

So if you’re a lapsed SF/fantasy reader/gamer and somehow you’ve happened upon this article, please come back to us. You can have d20s and vaginas in your life, I promise.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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6 Responses to DON’T GROW OUT OF IT

  1. Cees (Dutch) says:

    WOWOW, Phil!

    I thought I was the only one with a heart ‘n’ mind, too young for my body.. boy, did you wake me up, there!

    Although I haven’t got a lot of my collections of (Sci-Fi) books & comics left (after 2 separations and being burglared a couple of times), the feeling is still there, and I applaud you wholeheartedly.

    Since the burglars took most of my pride when they cleaned out the place (twice), I’ve now, avid and compulsive a collector as I am, started collecting a good amount of Sci-Fi (including all eleven Trekkie movies), Marvel and DC films, and I enjoy ’em everytime I put one on, even if it’s the twentiest time..

    Only one word springs to mind after reading yer post: ATABOY!! Thumbs ‘re up!

    A fellow fanatic

  2. By the way: I took the liberty of adding a link to your Handbook to my Blog..

    If you mind, don’t hesitate to tell me off..


    Dutch (Cees – pronounce: ‘Case’)

  3. theveryhungrybookworm says:

    THANK YOU! I love fantasy, SF, and everything else and it does not have to be something we grow out of. In fact, it stretches our minds in ways that realism never could.

  4. Shawn says:

    I don’t play D&D. I think I’m too shy and the few people I’ve met in my town that do play have turned out to be arrogant douche bags who I always felt were looking down their noses at me and the rest of the world. Or maybe that was my shyness.

    Well, they WERE arrogant douche bags.

    I still have the three core rulebooks for 3.5 (and Psionics, Vile Darkness, and Eberron) and I’ve read through them enough to understand some of the more basic terms (I remember when the term d20 blew my mind because I had never heard of any dice that went beyond 6). Maybe this is why the very last sentence made me laugh out loud.

  5. Pingback: BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XVI: ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  6. Pingback: WHY FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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