Re: Fanfiction

For me, the term “fanfiction” has grown to include many things that most people would not consider fanfiction, to the point where even I think I need a new term. The case that made me realize this was Serenity, the movie based on the short-lived Firefly television series. Though opinions on Serenity are quite varied, my take on it is that it’s basically fanfiction, despite being made by the original creators of Firefly.

Why? Without spoilers, because character development that traditionally would occur over a long period of time happened in a quick burst. Because the scale changes ridiculously—the crew of Serenity essentially affect the galaxy, rather than being small-time smugglers. Because ultimately, the movie was more about what fans said they wanted to see (more Kaylee and Simon, more River, etc.) than about making more Firefly.

Of course, all of that applies to “the new Star Trek movie”, which many people just know as Star Trek. I’m talking about J.J. Abrams’ 2009 movie, which played the Star-Trek-acceptable “alternate timeline” card in order to almost completely throw away the original canon. Hard-core Star Trek fans disliked it, or were at least perturbed by the changes, in which character development happened ridiculously quickly and everything Jim Kirk touches affects the fate of the galaxy. And Spock and Uhura—completely superfluous and out-of-character.

Of course, Star Trek stood on its own. I’m not sure Serenity did. Maybe that’s what makes one fanfiction and not the other. Or maybe they’re both fanfiction anyway.

My last post on fanfiction was several years ago. At that time I argued that fanfiction is not inherently a bad thing despite the stigma attached to the word and the idea. I felt compelled to revisit that after reading two relevant fictional works: Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing… and Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

First, And Another Thing…. A lot of people have read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Many of them have read the next two books in the series—my brother and I agree that the second one is quite good and the third one is comparatively lackluster. Some people noticed that the series is now “The Increasingly Inaccurately Named Hitchhikers Trilogy”, and read the fourth and fifth books as well.

And then, seven years after Adams died, it was announced that Eoin Colfer, known for the Artemis Fowl series, would write a sixth book for the series—something that Adams had apparently considered doing, but had never gotten around to.

I put off reading And Another Thing… for a long time. It felt a little sacrilegious to me (and I wasn’t the only one). Still, from the time I first heard about it, I thought “if anyone can do this, it’s Colfer”. So…

Well, it didn’t feel like part of the series, exactly. Excerpts from the (fictional) Guide used to be italicized blocks at the start of chapters, or occasionally extra bits tacked on inline in the story. And Another Thing… uses a pull-quote style that wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t show up as often as “beautiful” in Twilight. It makes it feel a little cheesy, a little knockoff.

But…well, does And Another Thing… fit in the series? Not really…and while some of the callbacks to previous books are fun, others feel forced or superfluous. But oh wait…So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless (the fourth and fifth books) don’t really fit with the first three. Arguably, the third book doesn’t fit so well with the first two.

And Another Thing… is kind of slow to get into, but it actually works pretty well at the end. It doesn’t exactly feel like a Hitchhiker book. But you know what? If I stop worrying about whether or not this was okay to do, if it was a “legitimate” work or “just” fanfiction, I did enjoy it. It’s not the best one of the books, but it was still fun to read.

Except…my brother points out that in theory Colfer should have been able to write his own unrelated book, and points to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens as an example of a book that has a similar penchant for quirkiness.

I’m not sure if And Another Thing… is fanfiction, but Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality definitely is. Methods of Rationality is an alternate-universe telling of Harry Potter in which Petunia Evans marries a future professor, Michael Verres, and consequently, Harry Potter-Evans-Verres grows up in a household full of books, science, and rationality. So when he receives his letter from Hogwarts…well, there are an awful lot of inconsistencies in the Harry Potter books, and Methods of Rationality’s Harry has a lot of fun poking holes in them. Or if he doesn’t, at least we do.

Methods of Rationality would be fairly easy to classify as fanfiction even if it weren’t located at It borrows an entire world but ignores a fair amount of the canon. It has characters behaving out of character. It even has fanservice moments.

And it is wonderfully written, very fun for anyone logically-minded, and doesn’t really damage the original series in its telling. (The “alternate timeline” escape hatch again helps with this.)

For more fanservice, it has references to other books that we sci-fi/fantasy people might have read (numerous parts implicitly and explicitly borrowed from Ender’s Game, and one of the last female heroes to graduate from Hogwarts being Cimorene Linderwall). These references are, for the most part, enjoyable, not stupid.1

The point of all this? Once again, that “fanfiction” is not inherently a bad thing. But also that even the usual recipe for bad fanfiction is not guaranteed to produce a bad thing. The author of Methods of Rationality includes this credo on his profile page:

My philosophy of fanfiction:

Creativity means creating a good, original work. The goodness part is complicated. Originality isn’t easy, but it is simple: Just don’t do stuff that’s already been done.

The First Law of Fanfiction states that every change which strengthens the protagonists requires a corresponding worsening of their challenges. Or in plainer language: You can’t make Frodo a Jedi without giving Sauron the Death Star. […]

The thing is, these rules apply to any stories, not just fanfiction. Be original.2 Balance your protagonists and antagonists.

Writing standalone fiction is different than writing fanfiction. It certainly requires things that fanfiction doesn’t. (I’ll remain silent on whether or not it is harder.) But taking photos with a digital camera (instant feedback) is certainly easier than taking them with a film camera. That doesn’t mean that digital photos aren’t respectable, and furthermore, it doesn’t mean they can’t be art.

That’s right, I said it. Fanfiction, like all other creative works, can be trash. Or…it can be art.

  1. A moment in-universe: Methods of Rationality also finally made it clear what House I’d be sorted into, something a lot of my friends have had fun pondering (for themselves and for others). I am a Ravenclaw, defining aspect being curiosity: if you present me with the option to know the truth about something which might (or will) hurt, I still want to know. ↩︎

  2. Of course, “there are no original stories”. Lots of people have heard me say this, and I’ll probably cover this in a later post. But for now, check out “Everything is a Remix”↩︎