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A Brief History of Fandom, Part 2: The Impressive Scale of Genre Fandom


When we left off last time, fans of science fiction and fantasy had started to contact each other and form the first genre-oriented fan communities. The Society for Creative Anachronism was in full gear, the National Fantasy Fan Federation was up-and-running, and cheap pulp magazines filled drugstore shelves.

Also at that time, most adults (including librarians) considered genre writing too low-brow to place in libraries. While they eventually moved past the whole “ignoring a prolific genre of writing” thing, for a while there it did save those librarians a lot of work cataloging these novels. I’m certain they were grateful for that, because there were a ton of them.

While the penny press revolution was great for lowering the barriers of entry for new writers, it also meant an explosion of content from various sources. Impressive as this was, it was still decades away from our own “Information Age.” In 2007 alone, we produced so much data that “‘if we were to take all that information and store it in books, we could cover the entire area of the US or China in 13 layers of books.'”

I really just put that quote in here to make you afraid of books

While the large number of magazines and novels wasn’t that bad, the market was still flooded with cheap pulps looking to cash in on the style of successful pulp heroes like Sam Spade and John Carter of Mars, which is certainly a trend we don’t see nowadays. Never mind that on top of this, fans had started to create their own fictions based on the serialized stories they loved so well.

I read a lot of fan fiction for this column and now you’re all going to suffer for my mistakes!

One of the ways fans can express their love for a persistent universe is by creating derivative works of their own fiction. Commander Shepard knocks up every female around him.

Fans want to explore their favorite universes in their own way. It’s a chance for them to play around with their favorite works and indulge some non-canonical ideas. Commander Shepard gets forced into a polygamist marriage.

At its best, fan fiction is a way for fans to entertain themselves while they wait for the next installment in a series. They could examine a fictional universe and maybe even resolve some issues regarding continuity; like how a character could be in two different places at once, or come back from the dead.

Unlike many of today’s fans who obsess over continuity violations, authors back in the day didn’t really care if they broke continuity and it wasn’t really a contentious issue with fans. In fact, a lot of fans started to write fiction as a way to rationalize the nonsensical continuities of their favorite pulps. Some even managed to turn these continuity stretches into full novels, like the very respectable Philip José Farmer, who reimagined the pulp stories of both Tarzan and Doc Savage. Compare that to contemporary E.L. James and her Fifty Shades of Grey, which is about Twilight characters boning.

Harry Potter and the Magical Cross-Gender Wizard Impregnation.

In terms of scale, fan fiction writers outperform pretty much every other author on earth. For example, here is a Mass Effect fanfic that is over 300,000 words long. Then we have Melaradark, a published fantasy author whose Mass Effect stories come to a sum of over 660,000 words.

I have to rewrite that, because I find it too hard to believe. 660,000 words. That outpaces classic long works, like Les Misérables, Atlas Shrugged and even War and Peace.

It’s 180,000 words longer than Infinite Jest, which is impossible because there is literally nothing longer than Infinite Jest.

"I am Forever" - DFW

If her stories were published as a continuous novel, it would be the seventh longest novel in the history of mankind. Thankfully, fan-love goes beyond writing fiction. Some fans go on to write music or create art. One Avengers fan created a chronological, 9-hour-long edit of all the relevant Marvel films in preparation for the movie.

In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell notes that BioWare’s Edmonton office is home to “nineteen painstakingly detailed woodcut plaques that [bear] the design-specific titles of every game BioWare has released. The artist responsible had sent the woodcuts to BioWare at no cost in order to show his ‘appreciation for years of great gaming.'”

I would even put modding videogames as a type of fan service. Instead of creating a story based on the universe of a game, modders can open up that system and tinker with the mechanics of the universe to make their own versions. Modding sets players free in a playground of game mechanics that they can change as they see fit. Unlike book or movie fandom, videogame fans can derive new experiences within a game by using many of the same tools as the developer.

There seems to be no limit to how much fans are willing to do for their franchises. Although mainstream media often considers it a joke, people have been getting married in Klingon ceremonies for years:  becoming legally bound to each other in a ceremony based on a fictional culture. Once a fan gets married in a manner that matches their favorite show, there isn’t much more they can give to the genre, unless they want to become the next Forrest J Ackerman.

Forrest J Ackerman makes fandom a career

We can’t get very far into a discussion on modern genre fandom without talking about Forrest J Ackerman.

It's a thin line between "Sci-Fi Fan" and "Intergalactic Game Hunter"

Raised at a time in which sci-fi had yet to truly explode on the pulp market, Ackerman became a very prominent fan/contributor to the genre. His stories were published in various science fiction magazines, and as a literary agent he was well connected to the horror/fantasy/scifi community. He knew everyone in genre fiction, and is even said to have funded Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi fan magazine Futuria Fantasia, which sounds less like a magazine and more like one of those unreadable Wingding fonts.

Hey, finger diamond virgo ampersand you too, pal

Ackerman is responsible for starting a lot of the trends we’ve come to associate with fandom: collections, costumes, conventions… everything. He modeled some of the first “Futuristicostumes” at the World Science Fiction Convention, prompting fans to imitate. His collection of sci-fi and b-movie memoriabilia was so complete, his house became known as the “Ackermansion.” He was even one of the first celebrities at Golden State Comic Con, the forerunner of San Diego Comic Con.

His dedication to sci-fi and genre was so profound, the words on the plaque above his grave say “Sci-Fi Was My High.” He became the epitome of fandom, and much like the very genre he supported, many people imitated him, but none could match him. Except maybe Bjo and John Trimble.

Bjo and John Trimble start fan campaigns

Two more lifelong fans of science fiction, John Trimble and his wife, Betty JoAnne (Bjo) met at a party thrown by Forrest Ackerman (it was a really small world.) As a fan, Bjo was mostly involved with setting up sci-fi fashion shows at conventions. These shows would model costumes used in upcoming movies and TV shows as well as concept fashion.

The story goes that during a 1966 convention in Cleveland, Bjo was put in charge of the “Futuristic Fashion Show” and told to find time to model three extra costumes that would appear in an as-of-yet unaired television show. She initially declined due to time constraints, but a “big handsome man jollied [her] into putting his costumes in the show.”

The man? Gene Roddenberry. The show? Star Trek.

Roddenberry: a big man with big jollies

The Trimbles befriended Roddenberry and spent a lot of time on set. When the second season of Star Trek opened to poor ratings, NBC decided it would be the show’s last. The Trimbles had other ideas. After one of their last nights on set, the Trimbles came up with a plan to mobilize the Star Trek fanbase and clog NBC’s office with letters demanding a third season.

And it worked. It worked so well that NBC had to make an on-air announcement saying that Star Trek would not be canceled, please stop sending letters. This didn’t stop the network from slashing the show’s budget and moving it to an unfavorable time-slot, but by then it was too late. The third season gave Star Trek enough episodes to enter syndication, where it continued to grow in popularity and well, we know the rest.

This is a great documentary, by the way

We can see some clear similarities between the Star Trek letter campaign and Retake Mass Effect: Both arose from fans who loved their respective series. Both wanted to see the franchise they love get the respect it deserved. But with Star Trek, fans went after the network; with Mass Effect, they went after the creator.

Star Trek fans wanted the series to continue, but they did not want it to continue in any particular way. They wanted Gene Roddenberry to keep doing what he loves, because they loved it too. In this sense they had more in common with the modern day Operation Rainfall, the campaign to get the Nintendo Wii games Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower localized in North America. These fan campaigns did not ask the creators to change a character or alter an ending: something like that wouldn’t happen until the 1990s.

Hal’s Emerald Attack Action Team

A lot of bad things happened in the comics world in the 1990s, particularly over at DC. Superman? Dead. Batman? Crippled. And Green Lantern Hal Jordan? Well…

Long story short, his hometown gets blown up, he goes crazy with grief, destroys the Green Lantern Corps, eats the central power battery, and disappears for awhile. A young graphic designer named Kyle Rayner becomes the one and only Green Lantern, Jordan returns, dies, and the fans’ rage destroys the earth.

Later, Geoff Johns would put it back together

In response to this character shift, the fans created Hal’s Emerald Attack Team, which they very quickly changed to “Action Team,” because “attack” is kind of terrorist-y. Like with Star Trek, they commenced a fandom-wide mass mailing campaign, but unlike Star Trek, this one lasted for a whole decade.

Children were born and lived the first ten years of their lives in a world where Hal Jordan was evil and his fans despised DC for what the company had done to him.

The entire The Trojan War could have taken place within the span of H.E.A.T., and the war probably cost less money and involved fewer people.

The Horse was actually full of hate mail

These fans, many of whom had followed Hal Jordan’s story since their childhood, were upset  at what DC had done to him. They didn’t want Kyle Rayner; They wanted Hal back, and they wanted him to be absolved of all the slaughtering he had done. After ten years, that’s exactly what happened.

In 2004, Geoff Johns, a noted Hal Jordan fan, rewrote a lot of Green Lantern history to reveal some details that would bring Jordan back to life and make him technically innocent of all the crimes he had committed. I’m not going to get into that here, but you can check out these two videos from a fellow Boston-based geek to learn more about it. The most important thing is that fans got what they wanted.

H.E.A.T. and Retake, while both successful in their own way, differ utterly in terms of time. H.E.A.T. went on so long that it pretty much became a part of the Green Lantern canon, which most certainly influenced other fans as well as writers, including Geoff Johns. In comparison, BioWare’s concession to Retake Mass Effect seems to have happened rather quickly, but that speaks more of the malleable aspect of videogames than it does a failing on BioWare’s part.

More new technology

While comic books and serialized fiction have a history of retcons, denial, and reboots, videogames don’t really have much history at all. Prior to videogames, the established forms of media had time to create and hone a number of different business models that worked for them since the mid 1800s. Videogames on the other hand became a relatively popular medium at the same time the Internet was revolutionizing communication and entertainment. In the face of new technology, a lot of those established business practices have become obsolete.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, we have seen a second explosion of content from just about everyone. More than the pulp magazines before it, the Internet has almost completely destroyed the barriers to access, so now all anyone needs to get published is an Internet connection. And as we try to absorb all the content out there, our habits have changed.

We also get to play a game called "Porn, or not porn?"

In a return to serialized stories, we have authors who publish novels in small segments that we download to our eReaders. We get downloadable content spoonfed to us by gaming companies as a way to prolong the life of a game while letting them make some extra cash. We have access to Steam and Xbox Live Arcade, that allow us to purchase and instantly download any game available without need of physical media. Couple this ease of access with ease of communication, and fans can easily discuss, praise, or rage against every piece of media associated with a franchise.

The stage is set

Finally, we’ve made it to the modern day. All the components are in place for the perfect storm that we call Retake Mass Effect. We have a series franchise with a devoted fanbase that participates in the fictional persistent universe through fan fiction, cosplay and modding. Those same fans have inherited a history of fan activism that, with the Internet, has allowed them to create more organized and efficient campaigns than ever before.

Scheherezade is telling her stories every night, and King Sheharyar is writing erotic fiction about it every day. The future of gaming and publishing is looking more like a conversation than a monologue.

But that doesn’t really set up the whole “retake” idea exactly. What role do these fans play in the Mass Effect story, and why do they feel BioWare has failed them?

Next time, we’ll take closer look at what makes Mass Effect special and why this would fuel fan outrage.

We’re almost done here, I promise. After the next column I’ll go back to making absurdist jokes about my parentage.

Colin is a columnist here at Default Prime. He's a gamer, unprofessional writer, and plays a mean bass kazoo. He thinks the gaming industry has a lot of growing to do, but he's eager to see where it goes.

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