A lot of the art and literature that I enjoy is broadly described as part of “nerd culture.” Science-fiction in general, a number of modern video games, H.P. Lovecraft and his literary ancestors and descendants… all these things are pretty common examples of things that nerds like. But “nerd” has always seemed like a rotten word to me. I understand the logic of defeating an insult by claiming it proudly, but it’s still inherently ugly.

The best you can say about “nerd” is that it isn’t the word “geek,” which I haven’t liked since Pat Prescott told me about the word’s origins in the horrific world of traveling 19th-century freak shows. (Caution: there is some truly disturbing stuff in the Harlan Ellison quote Pat uses to describe a geek.)

The other problem with “nerd” is that it’s come to be synonymous with “enthusiast.” People describe themselves as “word nerds,” “biology nerds,” “computer nerds,” etc. etc. etc. If you wanted to be really specific, you would probably call me a “sci-fi nerd,” although that feels close to redundant.  Pretty much any pursuit that seems even slightly intellectual has fans who describe themselves as “X nerds.”

But “nerd stuff” is a convenient shorthand for describing the things I write about. So if I’m going to complain about it, I’d better have an alternative to propose. I need a way of describing the aesthetic that’s more specific than “nerdy things.” Because the sort of thing I’m talking about here is more than just general sci-fi; it needs a more precise name.

Poster for “Le Chat Noir” (1896)

I’ve thought about this a lot, and what I came up with was Techno-Decadentism. Let me explain how I hit on that term. Decadence was the name adopted (again, originally from an insult) by a movement of writers and artists in the late 19th-century. The movement is closely associated with Symbolism and Gothic literature. I first learned about it through Robert W. Chambers’ short story collection, The King in Yellow. The first four stories in the collection are a weird blend of Poe-like Gothic horror and H.G. Wells-ish futurism. Most of the stories in the collection deal with artists living in Paris, one of the hubs of the Decadent movement.

Poster for “The Grand Duke” (1896)

Decadence has a negative connotation, since it means “decay.” And indeed there was a general feeling in Europe at the end of 19th century of pessimism and decline. This feeling has a name: Fin de sièclewhich literally means “end of the century,” but also refers specifically to the cultural mood in late-1800s Europe.

Techno-Decadentist art will also have a similar mood, though modernized. Warren Spector, the creator of the game Deus Ex, called this mood “millennial weirdness.” A fitting term, in more ways than one. It could be my taste for this is partly due to being a member of the millennial generation in the United States. Born in a global hegemon, at a moment of near-total peace and dominance, it may be I feel an instinctive sense that there is nowhere to go but down. But we’ll leave that kind of philosophizing to the Edward Gibbons of the world.

But this does not mean that all Techno-Decadent art is inherently pessimistic, only that it usually takes place in a world “on the brink of social and economic collapse,” as Chris Avellone once described the setting of Knights of the Old Republic II.

Oscar Wilde, one of the most enduring writers from the decadent movement, supposedly said that “Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts.” I can’t find a source for this, but whether he actually said it or not, it’s a good quote. It illustrates a key point about the underlying philosophy of Decadentism, which is very individualistic and unconcerned with themes like Idealism or Romanticism.

That’s the reasoning for the use of Decadentism, but what about Techno?  Well, I was inspired to use the term by the “techno-warlords” in Lorinda Taylor’s The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars novels. It’s necessary to specify this because most of the art I’m talking about here involves futuristic technologies. Typically, “nerd culture” refers to both sci-fi and traditional fantasy. My own tastes lean much, much more strongly towards sci-fi; especially cyberpunk, dystopias, and retro-futurism. While there can be an overlap in themes with sci-fi, I’d argue that fantasy fiction and art is clearly carrying on the tradition of classic mythology, and therefore deserves to be seen as a distinct artistic movement.

So when anyone asks me if there is a unifying theme to the kinds of things I tend to write about, that’s what I’m going to answer. I assume most people will shrug, say to themselves, “That’s awfully pretentious,” and continue to think of me as a guy who writes about nerd stuff. But at least I’ll have a term that describes my taste and style to my own satisfaction.

All of the above are works and art styles that I associate with Techno-Decadentism


  1. Thanks for the reference! As a writer from an earlier generation than you, I think I come mostly out of the tradition of literary fiction. After all, I never read either fantasy or sci fi until I was almost 30 years old. And I write my future history based on a world that brought itself back from a “social and economic collapse,” a world recovering from a dystopian situation, so my view is basically positive and optimistic about humanity (although I’m beginning to wonder if I’m right to feel that way). I don’t take the most positive view of technology, either, so that’s why I invented the rather awkwardly named Techno-Warlords – petty dictators who kept alive the nearly lost traditions of technology solely for the purpose of conquest. No longer do warlords fight like the barbarian hordes, with sword and fire and pillaging – they send out armies of self-replicating nanobots to destroy everything in their path. I call Hitler the first TWL because he not only learned to use the rocket for long distance slaughter, he also used technology for mass killing (see my supplemental book Fathers and Demons).
    I also believe in the power of mythology, so in that sense I’m a fantasist. You’re right that fantasy is the new mythology, or can be. Why else would I call the authors of the set of precepts that govern my future society the Mythmakers?
    Also you may have noticed that a lot of the gimmicky technology we have now has disappeared in the 28th century (“cell phones” are not in wide use – they require a special authorization) and even in the 30th, when The Termite Queen is laid, the every-day techology probably seems clunky and old-fashioned to most 21st century “nerds.”

    1. I love the optimism in the worlds you create. And frankly, I’m not sure it’s possible to have a stable, healthy society with widespread cellphone use, so I like how you handle that. 😀

  2. Thanks for the link. I never heard the word “nerd” until Happy Days came on TV. It was a 50’s thing, When I grew up those like me were “squares.” Words like nerds and squares have impact because they’re simple. Techno-decadentism has too many syllables. You make some good points.

    1. Yes, I was in high school in the 50s and “square” was the word. It meant you were not “hip.” It had nothing to do with technology. And frankly I don’t think it applied to girls.

  3. There’s a Wikipedia entry for Decadentism, specifically the 19th century movement you mentioned. I actually ran across just now it while looking up Gabriele D’Annunzio, about whom I know very little. I remembered seeing the word in your post early this morning, when I wasn’t awake enough to comment. You’re right –the world seems poised on the brink of some sort of disaster right now, or a series of disasters with climate change being the most threatening. Technology is both a tool and a weapon, which is frightening. I think Patrick has a point about too many syllables. Maybe “Decatech” would roll off the tongue more smoothly.

      1. Me too! Decatech has a nice ring to it. That said, I’ll continue to call myself a baby geek; Jill-of-all-trades-mistress-of-none is waaaay too long. 😉

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