Hi Ben and Matt,
First of all, I swear I wrote my article on finding good SciFi before I listened to you podcast on fandom. The gist of my point in that blog is directly related to Ben’s points on fandom. Though I might quibble at some of the names he gave to his classes of story, for the moment I really can’t come up with anything better.
First, one thing to note that I don’t remember Ben mentioning though it was certainly implied. Very few great stories fall into just a single category. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is clearly in that epic category that deals with the big questions of life. That was what Tolkien intended. However, there are also strongly thematic elements as well as philosophical and even visceral elements. (But no allegory… Tolkien despised allegory 🙂 )
I am perhaps a bit more forgiving than Ben regarding his 5th category of visceral escapism. Sure the downside that he describes is there, however I would argue that it is equally present for all five of his categories. Take the Harry Potter series for example. Though not on the epic scale of LotR, it is still solidly in that first category of the “Big Questions” of life type mythology. Yet it spawned an immense fandom that not only included a vapid pool of fanfic (a subject of its own) but also a ridiculous number of fan websites and a huge body of podcasts. There was some good in the latter, as the Harry Potter phenomenon played an instrumental role in developing the medium, but it reached the point that it seemed like every kid that could plug in an USB mic and had an iPod was putting out a Harry Potter podcast. On the down side, “fandom” went so viral that there were even fan pages and podcasts about the podcasts.
Just to stay with Harry Potter for a moment, it is also worth noting the way that the movies stripped all the rich depth and moral struggles from the books and left you with the shallow “event” of a visceral bank card. See? It happens with all types, not just superhero stories.
Oh, speaking of super-heroes, Ben was concerned about Josh Whedon “selling out” from storytelling strength. He’s long since gone down that route. Two word: Alien Resurrection. And yet, he is still able to come back to his roots. Firefly came after.
Probably one of the most egregious examples of fandom – and I’m going to ruffle a lot of feathers, here – is unquestionably Star Wars. Yes, it is a strongly thematic class of story, though it is almost equally visceral. I wouldn’t call it mythological in the sense that Ben defines mythology, though it has the complex and detailed world that is most commonly associated with the term. Star Wars is your basic good vs. evil story, basically a morality play. One of the best in our time, but that is still what it is. I’m not going to touch the cons or cosplay — you’ve covered those well.
Those of you old enough to remember might recall that Lucas was very protective of people playing in his sandbox. For a long time, the only extra-canonical work was Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Obviously, George eventually opened up the Star Wars universe, but still it was tightly controlled by very strict rules. That gave us stories like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy – one of the best Star Wars stories written. After these first stories, in what was becoming known as the Expanded Universe, things started going downhill. The rules were relaxed and it became a matter of quanitity over quality to make the quick buck and to give the die-hards the quick hit for their addiction. Go to the bookstore and visit the science fiction section. Compare the shelf space for original stories with the space for Star Wars novels. Once you get over the depression, go read my Where Has All the Good SciFi Gone article at TheChristianGeek.net. Frankly, half the SciFi section at my local bookseller is nothing more than Fan Fiction or fanfic.
And that is really one of my biggest pet peeves of fandom. With all due apologies to those who enjoy it, my attitude towards fanfic is lack of respect at best and loathing if I’m more honest. Simply put, fanfic is playing in somebody else’s sandbox and taking credit for their creativity. Sadly, the first person they’re fooling is themselves. Frankly, writing up with a story is easy. Sure, it takes time to write the words down, but literary diarrhea is no big deal. What is hard is developing the mythology and the characters and the universe that makes the story possible. What is hard is developing your own style rather than imitating someone else’s. I have no problem – and often enjoy – commissioned works that enhance or expand a story, but fanfic tends to dilute the original author’s creation in my opinion. I’m aware that there are plenty of authors that support and encourage fanfic and if you enjoy it then more power to you, but that’s certainly not me.
All this does not mean I’m down on fandom. If you’ve read any of TheChristianGeek.net or listen to my Lord of the Rings response to Ben, it’s obvious that I’m a fan of the first order. Fandom is certainly a great thing and it has a VERY long history. Going 2800 years back to the Iliad there are portions of those endless character histories that are not only part of the mental exercise of oral history, but also tips of the hat to the fandom the ancient Greeks had for their mythology.
Forward 800-1000 years to the first-third century church. In some of my theological studies, I’ve seen it hypothesized that works such as the Infancy Gospels and the huge body of literature that makes up the Acts of the Apostles (the genre, not the canonical book) fall into the category of early Christian fiction. The early apostles were heroes, so it’s hardly a surprise that a whole body of stories would spring up for their fans. Side note: the Apocryphal New Testament is a fascinating area of study that not only includes this types of fiction, but also has lumped in potentially more historical Acts from which church traditions area based, numerous letters of non-canonical or dubious origin and most famously the various Gnostic gospels which were the major heresy of the time.
Of course, you’ve already experienced what happens when you get me talking Tolkien. There’s also a lot of legitimate scholarly work around his stories. Not surprising since it is intended to fill that missing piece of a contemporary English language epic. Good luck shutting me up if you’re talking Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 or Fringe. But that said, I do have a life. These stories revolve around my life; I don’t orient my life around them. It’s when fandom “becomes” real life that it becomes destructive.
I’d like to close with one last thought. Don’t be too quick to write of the visceral – pure escapism – stories. The human mind needs simple play as much as the human body. The old Howard Conan stories, or Burroughs’s John Carter, Niven’s Known Space, or yes, Star Wars cover this important feeding of the human psyche. The problem arises when this type of story becomes the focus or when other types of stories have their meat stripped leaving only this eviscerated skeleton.
Sorry I rambled so long. Again. You guys have that effect on me.
Keep up the good work!