Shipping Forecast

Monday, April 4th, 2005

Bit of a mixed up post this one – but rather than just let it rot in the ‘drafts’ folder (where so many others are sitting unloved) I thought I’d post it anyway as it’s quite an interesting topic…

One stereotype of science fiction fans in that they are male, single and smell. It’s one of the most misrepresented subcultures out there, I think, and owes more to lazy media reporting than anything else. To give an example, 10.5 million people watched the first episode of Doctor Who in the UK last week making it the most popular non-soap that week – yet still the newspapers reported the figures as though only 5 year old kids and sad old bachelors were watching. Another example that still irritates me is the description in a Times book review of Terry Pratchett readers as being anorak wearers with B.O.
It seems people still don’t like to admit that SF can be classy, intelligent, thought provoking… and the SF outputs of HG Wells and George Orwell are conveniently classified as ‘classic fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ to avoid embarrassing anyone.

But ‘fandom’, which is only a small part of the following that SF has, is even more bizarre, and mixed, than anyone gives credit – though there have been a few serious analyses including a recent book on Star Trek and Doctor Who fans in particular (which I have, but haven’t yet read).

Something I wasn’t aware of until a couple of years ago was the high proportion of Doctor Who fans who are gay. It completely passed me by. There are some quite good explanations put forward for why this is the case, not least of which is the sheer after-the-event campness of the programme in the 1970s.

However, one area of fandom that I’ve been aware of but haven’t looked in to in much depth is the phenomenon of ‘shipping’ – or writing fan fiction in which characters from cult TV programmes get it together (hence shipping, from ‘relationship’). According to a post at Outpost Gallifrey this is also known as ‘slashing’ because the genres are described in terms of ‘Kirk/Spock’ (in which Captain Kirk’s lack of commitment to a relationship and Spock’s lack of interest is because they’re constantly at it behind the scenes).

It all started with Star Trek, but is widespread: Buffy marked its ‘high point’, and even Harry Potter hasn’t escaped (although I find the different slashing possibilities somewhat distasteful given the characters’ ages).
These shippers become quite loyal to their particular partnership: Star Trek Enterprise is the source of intense (and often bitter) rivalries between Archer/T’Pol and Tip/T’Pol shippers, to such an extent that I hear they are ‘physically’ separated in discussion forums because argument tend to break out.

Kirk/Spock fiction was the initial domain of what came to be known as ‘K/S Ladies’. Another type of writer is a ‘Mary-Sue’, someone who inserts themselves into a story as a character who initially represents themselves (shy, inarticulate etc) who comes out of their shell when they meet the hero (e.g. Captain Kirk). In this case there seem to be psychological reasons and therapeutic explanations.

Although there is a large amount of homoeroticism in many of these stories, this isn’t a pre-requisite. What is interesting, however, is that this particular wing of fandom is not the preserve of sad, lonely men with no sex life – it appears to be dominated by articulate and inventive women, lesbian, bi and straight.

Non-sexual fan fiction can be found everywhere and the CVs of quite a few of today’s top TV writers in the UK include substantial amounts. Some of it became quite legitimate: fan-produced Doctor Who audio plays and books have been turned into professional releases from Big Finish and the BBC, for example. JK Rowling even gave her approval to Harry Potter fans making up their own adventures and posting them online – presumably intending the blessing to apply to more innocent stories than some of those you can find if you know where to look (i.e. Google).
Writing fiction based on your favourite characters can, it seems, be a great creative spur because you don’t have to worry about inventing characters, only situations and judging from the number of unfinished novels I’ve got on my hard drive (I always get stuck just giving characters names!) I can believe how liberating it could be as an exercise.
Sadly, however, it isn’t encouraged by the snobby attitudes to such things that are held in schools – I wonder if teachers who set assignments for children to write adventures starring their favourite film or TV characters would find that even the most writing-averse kids would revel in it.

Anyway, there’s plenty of fan fiction out there – some of it is good (and the best often ends up being published) – but some of it is truly bad.
If you want to experience some of the best (i.e. ‘worst’) fan fiction try God Awful Fan Fiction.

One comment on “Shipping Forecast

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ah, so true – now we have a proliferation of young female ‘new’ Doctor Who fans writing net speak stories about the Ninth Doc and Rose falling in love, settling down and having babies (sorry – time tots).

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