I’m Not A Fan

Image of a fake dictionary definition for author. Altered definition reads:
Author, noun, a fictional creature, related to the pixie or faerie. According to folklore, they live inside of bookshelves, emerging once a year to trade a new book for U.S. $5.99 / CAD $7.99.
"I've never seen an author, but they must be real, right? How else do you explain Barnes & Noble?"

Don’t misunderstand, my dear void, I’m not saying I ever literally believed that authors weren’t real people. By the time I was able to read, and certainly by the time I started enjoying reading, I understood that a Real Person™ somewhere had come up with the words in the book.

But emotionally? For most of my life, authors occupied a conceptual space very similar to the characters in their books – they weren’t really real. They were existed in the abstract. Some were dead, some were alive, and the only difference was how long it would be before something new came out.

I had plenty of favorite authors, mind you. But I had favorite authors in the way that people have favorite seasons. I looked forward to the latest from Michael A. Stackpole or Tamora Pierce in the same way that you would look forward to the first snow of winter or the first lazy summer sunday spent napping in a sunbeam.

If the next book wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, well, that was the weather. I could always read something else. Books were a one-way street. They appeared on the bookshelf in the store, and if I liked it I paid my (parentally disbursed) money and transplanted it to the bookshelf at home.

I think this view of novels was encouraged by the nature of those bookshelves. From shortly after I began reading until the day I left for college (call it nearly a decade of my reading career) the majority of my books came from either my parents’ collection – the towering, oaken skyscrapers in our basement, with their shelves stacked triple-deep with classic sci-fi and pulp fantasy – or from Powell’s City of Books’ Gold Room – narrow canyons twice as high as the towers at home, so long and in so many rows you could easily get lost within them. A new-to-me book could be older than I was, or brand-spanking new.

Used books are artifacts divorced from time and causality, outside of their own internal logic. When you open to the first page, it doesn’t matter if it’s brand new or fifty years old; indeed, within the sf/f genres, there’s often no way to tell how old it might be (reading the copyright page is cheating, dear void).

When I picked up a book, it was only and precisely the book I picked up. I would read it, and then put it back on the shelf, where it could wait until I wanted to revisit it. If another book reminded me of it, I might decide to give it another look; if a sequel came out or the author emerged from their book-shelf hidey-hole to deliver brand new story I might decide it was time to reread then as well. But beyond that, the book was the book was the book. It was rare I’d run into someone in my social circles who’d read the same books (with the exceptions of certain YA standouts which were rather more popular than The Man-Kzin Wars III among preteens in the late 90s and early 00s).

I didn’t have a problem with any of this. I was quite happy enjoying the random flotsam tossed my way by the currents of time and publishing and taste. If nothing else, there were always more Star Wars and BattleTech novelizations to hunt down in the Gold Room, and I could talk about Star Wars even with friends who didn’t read the books, any time.

And then I read a strange little novel called Fallen Angels, and realized that there was a whole different world out there. Where people didn’t just read science fiction. The silent dialogue between reader and text was only the beginning for them. They wrote articles about the things they read. They wrote and performed music about it. They wrote fanfiction – epilogues and what-ifs for characters they loved to much to leave behind when the book was done. They went to conventions to talk about it. They had usenet groups and mailing lists and conventions – conventions where they met with authors.

Imagine, dear void, driving by a new petting zoo – and realizing it’s full of unicorns.

Wildest of all – Fans got written into books! Half the characters in Fallen Angels were real people, Fans who’d paid money to charity in exchange for their tuckerizations (Fans had their own jargon! And acronyms!).

Today, I can’t imagine someone discovering the idea of fandom, as distinct from readership, in such a quaint way. Fandom is glutted and gorged on the endless flow of information in the modern internet; AO3 entries for your favorite characters are as easy to find today as information about your local representative or library. Authors are on Youtube and TikTok, talking about their influences and latest faves; they’re on Patreon, publishing short stories and previews of their upcoming novels; they’re on Twitter, showing off their latest dice purchases and narrating harrowing real-life tales of identity theft and asbestos removal.

Fallen Angels, by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn, is a Prometheus Award-winning novel, published in 1991. Against a backdrop of a world caught in an ice age as the result of overzealous environmentalist efforts to avert global warming, it pits a team of rag-tag sci-fi fans up against a neo-luddite eco-fascist U.S. government, in a race to rescue downed astronauts and return them to their space station home.

It was already an odd read by the early 00s. Today, the tech and politics are… let’s call it “oddly dated.” A weird technocapitalist cocktail, with a garnish of solid orbital mechanics and a rim salted by questionable climatology. It’s still a fun romp if you look past that, and a timecapsule for Fandom.

Meanwhile, I’m thirty-one years old and writing novels of my own. I’ve seen some of my favorite authors speak in person. I’ve been to some conventions, though not a DragonCon or a WorldCon (coughPAXcough). I follow a good double-handful of authors on Twitter. I read mostly new fiction these days, even as the cost of a book has gone up – I have Grown Up Job money and a Kindle Unlimited subscription despite my mixed feelings about Amazon.

But I’m still not really a Fan, whether in the now-quaint Fallen Angels sense or the modern tumblr-driven fandom sense. I didn’t cut my teeth writing fanfiction, like so many writers I know. There are no recordings of me making filk. I’ve never voted for the Hugos.

I’ve never really felt the need to engage with the weird, wild communities that surround so many of the things I love.

Or perhaps I’ve never had the nerve.

The sheer joyful creativity that is on display from the fandoms of the world these days is incredible; the stories of community and friendships that come bubbling up out of it as touching and meaningful as anything ever put to pen. But that same volume and passion can also be incredibly intimidating – and damaging. Fans are (mostly – this isn’t a book review or summary) heroes in Fallen Angels – but Fans are often the villains in real life, reacting with more passion than thought to perceived insults or slights.

On the far side from thinking of an author as a mythical being is thinking that an author is your best friend. And I mean, if they actually are your friend, great. I’m an (aspiring) author! I have friends who are authors! Turns out they’re real people!

But, inevitably, most Fans don’t actually know the creators they follow – they just feel like they do. When authors and characters feel as real and close as their friends and family, it’s no wonder Fans become territorial and defensive of them.

It’s easy for Fans to take an interest and an appreciation for something and make it into a tribal marker. The same asymmetry of communication that lets a single creator entertain a hundred thousand readers can be reversed to devastating effect. Toxic Fans can pile on to drive an actress out of the public eye over a performance they didn’t like, or dox a trans woman who criticized their favorite author.

The thing is, you don’t have to be a Fan to be a fan. It’s okay to enjoy things on their own merits, without subsuming them into your self-identity. Especially when it comes to books – a naturally private experience. You don’t need the wider community discussion and consensus to inform your experience with a book. I have faith in you, dear void, to decide for yourself which elves and dwarves should have gotten married to each other, which villains should have gotten redemption arcs, which side characters actually recovered from their wounds and are doing just fine running coffeeshops offscreen.

If you are a Fan of something, that’s awesome too. Just because I have never been part of a community in any meaningful way doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dive right in and enjoy everything it has to offer. Just… try to remember that the things you love aren’t perfect, and they don’t need you to protect them from all criticism*. Your inside voice will suffice. I promise.

*To be 100% clear: Keep punching Nazis, friends. Between the time I started writing this and coming back to clean it up for publishing, I was rather firmly reminded that there are still people actively out there banning books for showing the world the way it is and has been. Inside voices are for actual conversations. Also Twitter might be dying? I’m publishing this before the death throes give way to rigor mortis, just to be safe.

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