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  Alternate Universes

"The Learning Curve":

Hypertext, Fan Fiction, and the Calculus of Human Nature

This is a slightly longer version of the paper I presented at the M.I.T. conference "Media in Transition," October 9, 1999.


My first encounter with fan fiction came after I read Constance Penley's book NASA/Trek -- I was considering it for review for Amazon.com, as it got very good reviews in the British scientific press. In the event, I did not review Penley's book, but I was interested enough in the topic to do some web searches for more information. What I found was totally unexpected.

No-one had hinted to me that fan fiction might be good in a literary sense. I was expecting to find it interesting or subversive, but not of very high quality -- no better than the average of the professional Star Trek novels, and probably much worse.

Instead I found myself reading some of the best fiction produced in the 1990s in any genre. I was astounded. The best fan fiction -- works like Killashandra's "Bitter Glass" and Macedon & Peg's "Talking Stick and Circle" -- are true works of art, a distinct genre of literature with its own particular strengths.

I started following the alt.startrek.creative.erotica.moderated (ASCEM) newsgroup in February 1998. I was soon struck by the amazingly high number of well-written stories on the group, and by the science-like quality of the discussion and of the fanfiction itself.

What do I mean by "science-like"? Fans call what we see on the screen "canon", but we do not treat it as a sacred text: it does not have the canonical connotations of "literary canon" or "canon of Scripture." Screen canon is not "that which is known to be good and true." All fans admit that some screen canon is bad: badly written, badly directed, badly acted. We used canon non-canonically, more in the way scientists say "data".

My experience (as a biologist and a science writer) is that one thing scientists know about data is that some of it is going to be bad (see the humorous-but-accurate list of "Useful Research Phrases and what they Really Mean" found widely distributed on the Web). So scientists treat their data with respect, but not reverence.

Screen canon, like scientific data, is not all good, and a fan -- like a scientist -- doesn't always know which parts are good -- which parts are going to fit together. By "fit together" we mean, reflect a character or society that gives a sense of reality.

The cold, objective fact is that Captain Kirk is *really* William Shatner pretending to be a hero. We look at canon -- screen manifestations, words and gestures and expression -- and try to make up a theory -- like a scientist's theory about the physical world -- that explains the character or the society behind it. (Or that's funny or sexy or pulls in as many Monty Python references as possible -- but that's another lecture: "Treksmut: Comedy, Tragedy or Satyr Play?")

It is the effort to create characters that match a set of objective data -- screen canon -- that makes me call fanfic "The Calculus of Human Nature." Fanfic can be a tool for studying character. It may in fact be the most powerful literary tool for this purpose -- more powerful than conventional literary fiction.

Compared to mainstream literature, fanfiction is like laboratory science. A scientific laboratory is a good place to find out about nature because it is a narrow, controlled, artificial environment. The scientist in the lab holds as many factors as possible constant, so ze can see the consequences of changing a single factor.

[throughout this paper, I follow a convention used in parts of the 'net and use "ze" as a neuter singular pronoun, "hir" and "hirs" for accusative and possessive]

Similarly, fanfic writers are finding that their restrictions -- using "preset" characters, actions, settings, etc -- make it easier to go deep, particularly into questions of motivation, choice, and possibility.

If John Updike decides to change the way Rabbit parts his hair, it may have significance to him and he may be able to convey some part of that meaning to his readers -- but he can't rely on them picking it up or caring. Nor, however, can his readers say, "but that's wrong -- Rabbit's hair isn't *really* like that." Updike has total ownership of his character in a way that fanfic writers do not, at the expense of a level of reader knowledge and involvement that fanfic writers can use.

I'm going to discuss a particular fan fiction that illustrates all of these characteristics: quality, non-canonical uses of canon, investigation of character & choice. "The Learning Curve" by raku is an as-yet-unfinished hypertext novel, the first major piece of hypertext fanfic (though there have been a few with alternate endings). It is also, in my opinion, a major work of the Western literary tradition.

The author (ze has been interviewed online) uses the netname "raku", and self-identifies as an entity: a person of neither male nor female gender. Although most fanfic writers are female, ASCEM as a community has a relatively high proportion of members who self-identify as entities. I have met raku in physical reality and know hir real name and some of hir reasons for choosing to go the entity route, but they are not reasons ze is free to discuss in public. But it should not be overlooked that a number of entities do it because they like it.

"The Learning Curve" (hereafter TLC) is an enormously complex document, as you can see from the diagram. On this diagram I have color-coded the links between story files. Green links involve no choices on the part of reader or character. Blue links are unweighted choices, giving no information about possible consequences, such as: turn right or turn left. Red links are weighted choices, where the reader is warned about the consequences of the choice: Kirk lives, Kirk dies. I suspect that the red links largely reflect the online convention that stories with certain elements -- especially rape and character death, both of which take place in different parts of TLC -- start with warnings, so that sensitive readers are not taken entirely by surprise.

My guess is that raku would have preferred all the "choice" links to be blue: unweighted decisions between apparently innocuous actions. The theme of "choices that lead to alternate realities" is not uncommon in fan fiction, especially for Star Trek (where it has been part of screen canon since the episode "The City on the Edge of Forever"), but as a rule the choices are large and obvious: Edith Keeler lives or dies, for instance.

I believe that raku is exploring a philosophically different approach. In the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier Kirk says (to Spock's brother Sybok): "Are you telling me I've made the wrong choices in my life -- that I turned left, when I should have turned right?" These lines seem to imply that Kirk's life choices have been trivial or random -- an attitude very much at variance with the rest of TOS (=Star Trek Original Series) screen canon, in which Kirk is presented as a decider, a chooser, par excellence.

What raku has done in much of TLC is to follow up this remark: to suppose that life-altering choices are as apparently simple and uninformative as left versus right, that you cannot tell from the triviality of the choice how grave the consequences might be. It is a difficult and profoundly unsettling idea. Fan fiction gives raku a way to argue for or work through this disturbing idea using familiar characters with whom hir audience is deeply engaged.

TLC begins between the movies Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Much of the screen canon raku plays off and manipulates is from STV, which is unusual. This movie (which was directed by William Shatner) is widely regarded as the worst Star Trek film, and most fan writers aren't interested in writing about such a bad movie. Among other factors, writing about screen canon takes a lot of re-watching, and repeated viewing of STV can become actively painful. But because STV is so bad, inconsistent both with itself and with other ST canon, there is a lot for a fan writer to explain. In addition to obvious canon difficulties such as the appearance of Spock's heretofore unsuspected half-brother, both Shatner and Leonard Nimoy have admitted that the movie was made in an especially disorganized, haphazard way, without a firm script or idea about what they were doing. And it shows in the final product.

So for instance raku says that in some scenes (especially where Sybok is showing "each man's pain"), "I find it hard to figure out what the characters are supposed be thinking, or doing, that wouldn't be highly colored by emotion or an emotional situation. That is, it seems to me that the strange expressions on their faces only make sense if they're seen as resulting from views and experiences we aren't shown in the movies." Ze goes on to say that "this story has aimed to show one possible set of events that lie behind the looks, but I think there are others that would be fun to explore also."

This is an example of what I mean by a "science-like quality" in fan fiction. The expressions on the actors' faces are data -- they are sense experiences, but they make no sense without a theory. Conversely, there are a variety of theories -- that is, of possible thoughts, experiences, and human personalities -- that might fit the data, and which the fan writers and readers can evaluate.

Like much fanfic, TLC is slash. The premise is that Kirk & Spock were married (in Vulcan terms, 'bonded') not long after the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is assumed to take place approximately ten years later. As you probably recall, Spock dies in that movie, is resurrected in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and the characters make it back home in STIV (also known as "the whale movie").

Raku starts by assuming that after he is resurrected in an arcane Vulcan ritual at the end of STIII, "Spock's human side is not well restored. He does not regain his human feelings for his bondmate James Kirk nor does he really remember their relationship. Kirk, Spock and McCoy all struggle with this situation."

Ze goes on to state the theme of TLC: "What they do to each other, or with each other is IMO [=in my opinion] largely a result of chance, of remarks here and there, of events that they don't control."

To see how this works in practice, let's take a particular bit of canon used in TLC. At the beginning of the movie STV Kirk, Spock and McCoy are at Yosemite. Kirk is free-climbing El Capitan when Spock zooms up on jet-boots to talk to him. They argue, Kirk is distracted, and he falls. Spock catches him just before Kirk would have hit the ground (violating several laws of physics). McCoy, who has been watching from the base of the mountain, loses his temper. Kirk then says:

OK, Bones, you're on to me. I was planning to *kill* myself in the most *spectacular* way I could think of, by leaping off a famous cliff with two good friends watching. But my bad luck, Spock caught me. There. Is *that* better? Is that what you want me to say?

Raku quotes the dialogue from this scene verbatim in "Climbing", one of a sequence or thread of sections that work with STV's Yosemite scenes. To my knowledge, ze is the only fan writer who has picked up on these lines and wondered if Kirk might actually be suicidal, if there might be a reason for his friends to be worried.

Within the larger structure of TLC, readers get to the threads based on STV canon on the basis of earlier choices. The crucial juncture is at the end of "McCoy Goes", where the reader can choose whether Kirk goes to bed right away or stays awake working at his desk. Though the latter choice seems innocuous, it leads to Kirk brooding over the failure of his marriage, and then attempting suicide. Though this choice-universe never apparently intersects with STV, the screen canon quote above and the image of Kirk's fall off the mountain are reflected or worked into Kirk's suicide attempt. Kirk plans to die in a spectacular leap, in this case out of his apartment window, and though Spock and McCoy do not exactly watch, Kirk writes notes to them both. In one thread Spock rescues Kirk in a more ballistically probable version of the canon scene. In the threads where Kirk dies, his funeral service is held on top of El Capitan and his ashes are scattered over Yosemite:

"That our captain and friend should have chosen to end his life, rather than live it under terms he did not accept, is both a testament to the strength of his character, and a statement of the greatest loss, both for us" Spock's voice roughened for a moment, then steadied "and for him and his immediate family. I could wish that the Captain had made a different choice--" Spock stopped abruptly, and stared straight ahead while his fingers silently dug into his palms "--and yet the choice was his to make."

. . .

Spock turned his back and moved to the very edge of the precipice, raising his right arm. "Jim," he said softly, "I would have had it otherwise."

They could see he held a dark green ceramic cylinder, its end decorated in pierced-work. Now Spock raised one hand in a final Vulcan salute. He upended the jar, and the stream of ashes flowed away on the evening breeze.

In Funeral (b), Spock too chooses death by falling, leaping off the cliff in an echo of Kirk's fall in this choice-universe, and of his dive to rescue the falling Kirk onscreen in STV.

Within TLC the canon fall ironically takes place in the section entitled "Climbing". The section entitled "Descent" takes place the day before, as Kirk and McCoy set up camp and discuss Kirk's situation. It's my guess the title here reflects the fall of Kirk's hope that Spock's memory and their marriage will ever recover:

"Well, it may be a big loss, but I'll damned well go on with it. I *will* live with it," said [Kirk] with clenched teeth. "On good days I think how much Spock risked to allow us to be here, and I think to myself I *will* use that."

"And on bad days?"

"I try not to have bad days," replied Kirk.

Yet in "Climbing" Spock's memory does return. The crucial juncture is at the end of the previous section, "Let Somebody Love You". Spock has joined Kirk and McCoy at Yosemite, where the two of them had camped the night before. The reader is given an apparently trivial choice: Spock straightens the sleeping bags, or he doesn't. But if you choose 'straighten,' the experience alters Spock's life irrevocably:

He fingered it and inhaled the mild lemon-like scent. Images of home drifted into his mind--Amanda, hands folded in her lap, Sarek backlit by a window. Amanda had sent such a pillow along when he left for the Academy, and he had struggled with himself over accepting it. Was he honoring his parent's gift? or giving in to the emotion of home-sickness? Not the first such conflict, or the last.

He put the pillow down and shook Kirk's sleeping bag again, then knelt to roll it. As he knelt, an aura surrounded him. An aura of pheromones, then direct scent. An overwhelming sense of human, male human. And ... sex. The awareness smote him sharply.

He curled over with his hands on his head, trying to banish the unwelcome images flooding his mind. James Kirk, pulling his shirt from his waistband. Kirk kneeling, beginning to speak ... No, this was not *logical.*

Spock's experience has a basis in reality: in humans (not to speculate about Vulcans), the sense of smell is the one most closely tied to memory. Within TLC, the return of Spock's memory leads to more choice-universes, incorporating various pieces of STV and STVI screen canon -- and an array of events with the pity, terror, and catharsis of Greek tragedy.

In this part of TLC, the last reflection of the screen canon image of the falling man comes (indirectly) in "Requiem" when we learn that in one choice-universe Spock committed suicide by space-walking without a suit. Overall, the image is woven into TLC horizontally, warping across the weft of plot threads.

In this paper I have only begun to explore a few facets of a few links in TLC; much, much more could be done. TLC is as complex, involving, serious, and worthy of study as any literary work of the 1990s. By the intention of the author, there is no "right" way to read TLC. Some readers have read it through only once, some have followed every choice-universe they could, others have read almost randomly or followed only a few choice-universes.

I think TLC would be an interesting and provocative syllabus choice for courses on reading and reader-response. Reading it, thinking about it, and comparing their responses to those of other readers would let students explore one of the fundamental uses of literature: to develop a better understanding of one's self and others, to seek truth from fiction.


Note on TLC: in February 2002 raku took down hir website, generously granting me persmission to archive TLC here.

by Mary Ellen, "Doctor Science, MA"

 


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updated November 6, 2002

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