Here’s where the nerd character loses me every time: when they possess a huge quantity of specialized, expensive equipment in their bedroom or tree house or wherever. I mean, come on. You didn’t buy that intricate distilling apparatus at your local Walmart.
(Aside #1: Actually, I just looked up distilling apparatuses on Amazon, and they run around $80 for a basic set. And now I WANT ONE SO MUCH. I don’t even know what to do with it, but I Gollum-style wants it, Precious, yessss.)
I’m guessing there are parents out there that like to cultivate their children’s science-oriented interests, and I guess spending $200-$1000 on lab equipment isn’t all that different than spending money on piano lessons, soccer fees, ballet classes, and all the expensive equipment thereof. But my mother wouldn’t even let us have Play-Doh® because she didn’t want to find bits of it stuck in her carpet. Junior chemistry sets were never even on the negotiation table.
(Aside #2: Did you know that Play-Doh® was originally sold as a wallpaper cleaner back in the 1930s? The things you learn when you’re only trying to discover whether to use a registered sign after a brand name!)
The nerd-owned amateur laboratory serves as a cheap means to advance a plot. Do the main characters need to analyze fingerprints or inspect crime-scene samples? To the convenient laboratory! Need to test for presence of chemicals or create an antidote? To the convenient laboratory! Need to hack into an evil corporate mainframe? To the convenient laboratory, now with the latest in computer technology!
We all want the convenient laboratory in our own home, but the cost of keeping one would be astronomical—to say nothing of all the space it would commandeer. The chances of finding an amateur lab in a middle-class suburban neighborhood—a lab that’s not churning out meth, I mean—is probably slim to none.
(Aside #3: A nerd using his lab to churn out meth would be a pretty dark addition to any high-school-setting story. But I suppose Breaking Bad trampled close enough to that ground already.)
And now, some fictional labs that work:
- Dexter’s Laboratory: Here we have the stereotypical middle-class lab ad absurdum. There’s no way this lab exists in any real space, but in a cartoon, it’s perfect. There’s also no way that the lab’s owner would have an Eastern-European accent when he’s clearly been raised in American suburbia, but that’s also perfect.
- Flavia de Luce’s chemistry lab: 1) She lives in an English manor house, so there’s plenty of room for hobby-dedicated spaces. 2) The lab is a relic left by an eccentric ancestor. Convenient to the plot and her character both? Yes. But it also fits nicely into the rest of her world instead of being some random element tossed in for the sake of convenience alone.
- Lucille from Leverage: First of all, cliché as a van-based tech lab is, this one is owned by one of the most entertaining hacker characters in all of Fictionland. Second of all, it’s named Lucille and it has a theme song. “Two good ol’ boys / Behind the wheel, / Chasin’ down bad guys in Lucille!”
- The Batcave: Bruce Wayne is a billionaire. He can buy as many tech toys as he likes. The end.
I’d like to add: there’s nothing wrong with a junior chemistry set in a crawl space. That could make for a fairly entertaining set-up, in fact. But, like all things “junior,” such kits have their limitations—limitations that will hamper even the most stalwart of nerds. For more intricate work spaces, money will always be the crucial factor.
Time to fire up that meth lab, Nerdly.
(Jk, jk, drugs are bad, don’t do them.)