June 05, 2002


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techsploitation
by annalee newitz


Fanfic of the damned

CHARLES LIKES TO play a little game when he goes online to avoid working; it's called "find the weirdest fanfic." When you're as jaded as Charles is, the game can get pretty hard. He's one of those hardcore fans who knows every Buffy plot arc weeks before I see it unfolding on television. Although Charles swears that he hates Star Trek: Enterprise, he still reads the episode plot synopses on message boards every week. That's how devoted he is: he even reads the plots of shows he despises, just because they're there. If we ever catch a glimpse of an episode while flicking through channels, he instantly recognizes it. "Oh yeah," he'll say, rolling his eyes. "It's that episode where they find out about the Vulcan terrorist plot."

Yes, friends, things are that bad: you can actually avoid absorbing the beauty and transcendence of a television show by ... reading!

Hence the seductive lure of weird fanfic. As you may already know, fanfic is a genre of writing in which fans of a show, book, or movie write stories about the characters in it. Sometimes it's great stuff, better than what David Gerrold could do for Star Trek. (Shut up! I like Tribbles!) Often it's erotic. Kirk does Spock! Scully does Mulder! Xena does Gabrielle! Yoda does Obi Wan! But no matter how good or bad an individual piece of fanfic might be, it's always just a little bit cool because it shows that fans have enough imagination and talent to extend the fantasy worlds of their favorite shows.

Fanfic is also dangerously illegal. When the stuff was distributed the old-school way, in xeroxed pamphlets at S.F. conventions, it was harder for companies to crack down on it. Now that most fanfic is on the Web, however, bored attorneys can do a Google search and come up with 16 potential lawsuits in 10 minutes.

The excellent Web site Chillingeffects (chillingeffects.org) has an entire section devoted to the legal issues that plague fanish writers. Copyright owners of a movie can interpret fanfic about its heroes as "derivative works," a big no-no in intellectual-property circles. On our copyright-obsessed planet, even characters on a show are trademarks. So are plotlines. Last year a Star Trek fan site (www.bradley.edu/campusorg/psiphi/mov) was served with a cease-and-desist notice from Viacom's attorneys for posting a plot synopsis of the latest Star Trek movie. Even sweet Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders of Pern series, has sicced her lawyers on people who draw pictures of dragons "inspired" by McCaffrey's work. The penalties for fans who dare to think independent thoughts about the stories mass culture tells them are prohibitive. Fines for copyright infringement in fanfic cases have sometimes been as much as $100,000 when the offender is found to have "knowingly" used trademarked characters in his or her stories or images.

And yet despite its pseudo-black market status, or maybe because of it, we quest for the weirdest fanfic in the galaxy. I found the Star Wars Chicks Web site (www.starwarschicks.com), complete with erotic stories from a group called the Sith Chicks. Who knew that Darth Maul could be an object of desire? For alien-lovers, there's also ALF porn fanfic (www.writings.com/fd/Alf1.txt.html); elsewhere you can find ALF erotic drawings complete with a distinctly ALF-like penis with little furry stripes to match his nose.

But just a few days ago Charles found the Strangest Fanfic Known to Earthlings. Let us now praise Staked Blake (www.hermit.org/Blakes7/Fanzines/Judiths/Staked.html), a fanfic zine that so far no entertainment conglomerates have dared to call a derivative work. Who would want to admit that their show could have spawned such terrifying offspring?

You don't want to believe it, but nevertheless it's true. Some demented fans have combined the characters from dark British S.F. show Blake's 7 with the characters from Buffy. Not surprisingly, most of the episodes involve time travel and Blake's leather-clad master of sarcasm Avon. A typical plotline: "When the crew of [Blake's ship] Liberator encounter a temporal warp, history is not what they expected." Judging from some of the other plotlines, I'm pretty sure Willow is going to get it on with Avon. It's not the kind of thing I'd ever have imagined in a zillion years, and yet now I can't get it out of my mind.

I get shivers every time I imagine a world without fanfic, a world whose creativity has been so stymied by copyrights that Willow will never meet Avon and Kirk will never look dreamily into his lover Spock's eyes. What would I do without fanfic? Shit, I might start having to watch TV again.

Annalee Newitz (slowzone@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who is currently addicted to Vernor Vinge and has Andrew Dalke to thank for it. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.