I Think We Can Thank (or Blame) Star Trek!
A Brief Study in Fan Fiction
by Jerry Cornelius
Ah, fan fiction! - derided and mocked by some, embraced and enthusiastically written by so many! Writing a story about characters and worlds created by someone else is how many of us took our first stumbling steps into writing fiction. It’s the very heart and backbone of collaborative storytelling, and writing communities like Pan would be literary poorer without the various novels in which fans of a particular TV series, film or book have let their own imaginations run amok.
While its widespread popularity might seem like a modern phenomenon, the roots of fanfic lie way back in the dark Pre-Internet Age of the 60s and 70s. It actually existed even before that, but it wasn’t really fanfic as we know it, Jim. The term originally referred to amateurishly written science fiction and stories published in fanzines that were written by and about the fans themselves. Fanfic gained its modern meaning from the fans of the original Star Trek TV series, who photocopied and circulated fanzines amongst other Trek-obsessed devotees and sold them at SF conventions.
Right from the start Star Trek fanzines such as Spockanalia (1967) included fan art and fiction, and Gene Roddenberry's avuncular blind eye turned to this practice encouraged a proliferation of Star Trek ‘zines carrying fiction. There were loads of them. Fanzines for other TV serials such as Man From UNCLE and Blake's 7 quickly followed. Films weren’t far behind: by the time The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980 Star Wars fanzines had surpassed Star Trek ‘zines in sales, despite director George Lucas threatening to sue fanzine publishers who featured the Star Wars characters in sexually explicit stories….
Speaking of which, we can thank (or blame) the Star Trek fandom for originating the ‘slash’ sub-subgenre of fanfic - the first explicitly sexual Kirk/Spock story was published in 1974. And also for introducing the much derided Mary Sue trope, so named for the character of that ilk in the parody story ‘A Trekkie's Tale’, published in the Star Trek ‘zine Menagerie in 1973. Both have spread far beyond Star Trek fandom and infiltrated all fan fiction circles, but oh, Star Trek, you have so much to answer for! We still love you anyway.
Moving on into the digital age. While for decades fanfiction had had a limited distribution within a select group of similarly obsessed fans, like so much else in life that all changed with the advent of the internet. As home computers became more common in the 90s fanfic proliferated in Usenet group archives and LISTSERV mailing lists (remember those?) devoted to popular films, TV shows and books. Important fandoms that emerged during the period included Quantum Leap, Highlander, X-Files, Babylon 5, Xena, and of course all the Star Trek franchise spin-offs. Then in 1998 FanFiction.Net came online, a site which allowed anyone to upload fan fiction from any fandom. The ease of self-publishing on sites like FanFiction.Net and easily accessible blogging platforms such as LiveJournal prompted an explosive interest in reading and writing fanfic during the early 2000s. Popular SFF fandoms of their time include Smallville, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Stargate: Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica. There was also a huge upsurge in DC universe and Marvel fanfic.
Nowadays fan fiction encompasses all genres you can think of and a few it invented along the way, but when it comes to the number of stories written the science fiction and fantasy genre is still up there at the top. It’s not hard to see why. SFF is a literature itself largely created for and by fans of the genre, so fanfic might seem the natural consequence. Also, as a genre SFF necessarily involves a great deal of creative worldbuilding, which the limitations of a TV series or a movie or even a novel can so often only tantalisingly scratch the surface of, leaving fans with a great big “But what if….?” reverberating around in their minds and creating a rich and fertile field to sow with alternate or expanded universes. And of all genres, SF has generally had the most tolerance, even encouragement, for the writers of fan fiction.
Prominent science fiction and fantasy authors who have given their blessings to non-profit fan fiction include J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. While some authors like George R.R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon and Robin Hobbs remain strongly opposed to fan fiction of their oeuvre, some such as Mercedes Lackey and Anne & Todd McCaffrey have softened their initial opposition over the years. Even the hitherto vehemently anti-fanfic Orson Scott Card ("to write fiction using my characters is morally identical to moving into my house without invitation and throwing out my family") was moved to change his mind, once he realised the commercial implications: "Every piece of fan fiction is an ad for my book,“ he explained to the Wall Street Journal, “What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?" What kind of idiot, indeed.
Finally, those who think to condemn fanfic as an inferior, self-indulgent and unrespectable artform might like to consider that there are many talented fan writers producing high quality work too, and in fact you might be surprised at some of their names: Neil Gaiman has written Chronicles of Narnia, H.P. Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. John Scalzi (former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) wrote H. Beam Piper fanfiction. Orson Scott Card (ha!) wrote Isaac Asimov fanfic. Lois “The Vorkosigan Saga” McMaster Bujold and Naomi “Temeraire” Novik cut their literary teeth writing Star Trek fanfiction.
Our community of Panhistoria itself has had a long and valued tradition of fanfiction right from its earliest days, with novels representing the entire gamut of popular SFF fandom stretching from and including the TV series that birthed fanfic in the first place, Star Trek. From Star Wars to Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly; from Stargate to Planet of the Apes; from Dr Who and Moorcock’s multiverse to Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and many others besides - not all these novels are currently active or even still in existence, but they have all contributed to Pan’s rich fanfic tradition and given pleasure to very many writers and readers along the way. Long may the tradition continue!
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