I got a bunch of books for Christmas — the Robert E. Howard’s The Bloody Crown of Conan, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, a bunch of D&D source books, and Star Trek alum-turned-writer Wil Wheaton’s autobiography Just a Geek. It’s a measure of how good Wheaton’s book was that after reading a page or two I ignored the rest of these books — including the conclusion to King’s epic Dark Tower series, a conclusion I’ve been waiting years for — in favor of this slim tome.
Back in the day, Wil Wheaton played boy genius Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a role that earned him much scorn and ridicule among certain factions of the Trek faithful. Why? Well, Wesley could be annoying, and in some ways he epitomized the technobabble that would come to dominate Trek, but in truth I think they probably saw too much of themselves in him: a smart but socially awkward character who got along better with adults than those his own age. In short, he was a 24th century geek.
Wheaton was also notable for his role in the movie Stand By Me (in which four boys go searching for a dead body) and when he quit Star Trek, it seemed like big things were waiting for him on the silver screen. But those big things never materialized.
A Quest for Dreams Lost and New
On its surface, Just a Geek tells the story of Wheaton’s attempts to reconcile himself with leaving Star Trek and to prove to everyone that it wasn’t a bad decision. Wheaton talks about his repeated, repeatedly futile attempts to get hired as an actor, often making it to the final round of auditions, only to lose to “The Other Guy” (who’s defining characteristics appear to be a certain undefined “edginess” and the fact that he wasn’t Wil). It covers his personal evolution from that struggling actor to fledgling writer with raw and brutally honest blog, to — finally — someone who got paid to actually write a book. And finally got over Trek.
A fair amount of Just a Geek is taken from Wheaton’s blog, unedited or revised, but book-ended by transitional text that sets up, analyzes or tears apart each entry. Along the way, he talks about working with the cast of TNG, adventures on the set of the series, and his frustrations with upper-management (namely Rick Berman, Trek’s executive producer).
While the book is about Wheaton’s Trek experiences, it goes deeper than that. You don’t have to have been a former child star to understand what he’s dealing with — in the end, what this book is really about is getting over the decisions, scars, and setbacks of youth, acknowledging the things that went right, and finally becoming comfortable with your adult self. The circumstances may very, but it’s an experience we’ve all dealt with at one point or another. It’s just that Wehaton had the balls to write about it.
And to write well. I’ve been reading Wheaton’s blog for a year or so, and I’ve found his entries to be smart, engaging, personal and witty, with the occasional foray into gut-wrenching honesty. In a net full of dredge, his blog was — and is — an exception. But I was skeptical when I heard about Just a Geek — writing a blog is one thing, but putting it together into a cohesive book, well, that takes talent.
It turns out that Wheaton was up to the task. Just a Geek is a fast, funny read. I tore through it in a three-day weekend, laughing out loud more than once, and commiserating with Wheaton’s missteps and successes. I particularly enjoyed the Hooters stories that bookend the autobiography, the entries about his experiences on the set of Star Trek: Nemisis (which he was later cut from), and the ill-fated week when he blew off his family vacation for auditions that yielded him nothing.
The book is tightly focused on his career and Star Trek, touching only lightly on his geek interests and family (at least in comparison to his blog). While I would have liked to have seen some divergences — perhaps a more indepth look at his ACME comedy troop, some more stories about his wife and stepkids, and maybe a gaming story or three — the tight focus fits the book. It keeps things moving, and makes it the sort of thing you can read in a weekend.
The sticker price of the book was a little surprising — it retails for $24.95 for 267 pages, which makes it a slim tome indeed. And yet, I don’t regret buying it, and buying it in hardcover — it’s a good book, and one that’s ultimately worth its $25 sticker price.
If you’re the kind of person who hates Wesley, and can’t get past that character, then Wheaton’s book isn’t for you. And if introspection isn’t your thing, then you’ll probably want to pass as well. But if you’re the kind of person who finds himself (or herself) staying up until 5 a.m. having deep conversations about Life, The Universe and Everything, with people who know that the answer to life’s questions really has nothing to do with 42, well, do yourself a favor and pick up this book.