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Expectations and Fandom

Russ Allbery has written about the hostile reactions of sci-fi fans toward the delay of a book release [1]. Russ makes some good points regarding the issue of whether paying $100 for some books entitles a reader to have the rest of the series written (in summary – no, the author owes the fans nothing). Russ also notes that when someone makes a public promise to do something (such as writing a book) they will probably be feeling bad about being unable to live up to that, and harassing them about it is not going to make them feel any better – or make them better able to do the work.

Charles Stross has written a blog post about this topic, he makes some interesting points and the comments illustrate most of them [2]. One comment claims that the author of the delayed book in question “flaunts his NFL watching” while the same person also criticises the author for writing a blog. This level of contempt for the author amazes me. In case anyone is interested I watch The Bill and Desperate Housewives every week. Anyone who wishes to criticise me for watching soapies instead of documentaries is welcome to do so. But I will not make any apologies for spending some of my time doing things other than coding. If I watch Desperate Housewives instead of fixing a bug that inconveniences you then you just have to deal with it. I believe that taking a regular break from work is a basic human right, apart from which there is evidence to show that working excessive hours decreases the quality and quantity of work that is completed [3].

It seems to me that members of the free software community are in a better position regarding fans than most creative people, and that this is largely due to how transparent the development process is. The most influential members of the user (fan) base are software developers. While people will be disappointed when software is not released on time or has some bugs many users know what is involved and understand that no testing will find all bugs. Even some basic shell scripting can teach people the difficulties of programming and convince them to have a little more patience than they might otherwise have. So the typical user of free software will have some idea of what is required to write software while the typical reader of a novel has no idea of what is involved in writing a book.

Another benefit for the free software community in this regard is the open development process. When users are unhappy about release delays (as some Debian users were before Lenny was released) they can easily look at the bug list. If a user is pushy they can be invited to fix some bugs themselves, if they investigate the matter and discover that the bugs are too difficult for them to fix then they will probably feel compelled to stop hassling the people who can fix the bugs. Complaints from users regarding the release process can be turned around with “the software is late because YOU haven’t fixed any bugs”. Please note that submitting bug reports is NOT criticism, it is in fact helping the development process (particularly when the bug reports contain information on how to fix the problems).

This exposes another significant difference between writing software and writing a book. Even if I was a talented author I would not be able to offer any assistance to an author who had trouble completing a work simply because I wouldn’t have the same vision for the plot of a book. But it’s not uncommon for software development projects to be “forked” if the users are unhappy with some aspect of how they work, and it’s also not uncommon for a programmer to voluntarily give one of their projects to another developer – sometimes developers try and convince other people to take projects from them when they don’t have enough time. Even without changing the ownership of a project, anyone can submit a patch. The patches that I have received from users of my software have generally been of a high quality and it has taken little work to merge them.

A final difference is that any programmer can produce a private fork of a project. I have lost count of the number of times that I have produced custom versions of free software for my own personal use or for the use of my clients. Sometimes the modifications that I made were unsuitable for wider use (IE they broke things for usage cases that I didn’t care about) so I just privately made the software do what I needed. This makes the upstream developer (or team) and other contributors irrelevant to fixing the problem in question.

Now this is not to say that the free software community is perfect. But it seems that certain types of bad behavior that we see demonstrated in the sci-fi fandom circles are uncommon and the people who demonstrate them are significantly outnumbered by people who oppose such actions. Publicly criticising a programmer for watching the NFL in their spare time is akin to holding a sign saying “kick me”.

As I am a fan of science fiction (and hope to write some in the near future) I wonder whether the sci-fi community could be changed to have a culture more like that of the free software community.

The web site 365tomorrows.com publishes a short sci-fi story every day [4], they have been doing this for a few years now. They started out publishing work by a small team of authors with the aim of writing a story a day for a year. Now they also take submissions from users and they have a forum for budding authors to discuss their work. The site Protagonize.com is based on the idea of collaborative fiction [5]. I wonder whether the increasing number of sci-fi fans who join such forums will change the nature of the community. Maybe when a book is delayed the fans could take comfort in an increasing amount of fan-fiction based on characters from that book, I expect that the fan fiction will probably not impress all authors – and some may be offended by having their characters used in pornographic fan fiction. But that might just lead to a market shift towards authors who are not overly concerned about such things.

When attending sci-fi book signings I’ve noticed fans who appear to have stalking tendencies. I have been wondering how much of this is another symptom of the same problem and how much of it is due to science fiction attracting some people who don’t understand the concept of personal space and who haven’t considered the mathematics of interactions between famous people and fans – as one of many fans the famous person will not remember your fan letters or whether they have met you before, it’s not possible.

I look forward to the day when a well known author can have lunch with some fans after a book signing and not be afraid of weird fans. I wonder if Cory Doctorow [6] already has such cool fans, Cory seems to be one of the leaders in the new open way of writing and releasing sci-fi so it seems likely that he would be among the first to reap the benefits. I’m sure that most authors would like to have lunch or dinner with their fans if they could be assured that the probability of getting stuck with a nutty fan was extremely low.

2 comments to Expectations and Fandom

  • Another thing to note is that FOSS programmers have thirty years of cultural experience dealing with direct interaction with the programmers of a project, and having a direct view of what they’re doing. This is something which is still relatively new in the modern world of publishing – reading what the author is up to on their blog or twitter feed is a totally new access method. The illusion was of authors and artists sitting in their inaccessible tower and sending down missives every whenever; the reality that you might be passing one in the street or they might get the flu or be bored or get writers block was glossed over.

    I also think that it suits the traditional publishing industry to keep this illusion. There is considerable danger if some fan claims that their comments on the author’s blog have been used in a new book without any compensation – the obvious (traditional) solution is to carefully control all access to the author so that they never get ‘tainted’ by attributable ideas. The fact that authors themselves are freeing themselves from this straitjacket is wonderful. However, fandom also has to learn the lessons that the FOSS community has – that you can’t demand work of someone even if you theoretically pay their bills, that authors are normal people with normal ups and downs, and that being rude or obnoxious is a good way to drive work away rather than assist in its production.

    And, most importantly, the publishing industry has to come up with suitable ways of acknowledging that their authors get their ideas from the real world. Traditionally, authors don’t want fan fiction because if a fan mentions an interesting idea and the author sees it, then if it ever turns up in a book that fan can (rightly) claim some contribution to that. This is the old proprietary way of writing software – patents and all – that has held the software industry back for so long. FOSS has two important parallels to draw on that situation. Firstly, getting a mention in the foreword (c.f. changelog) might be all the reward a contributor gets for their idea – establishing the monetary value of an idea is a hugely tricky thing to do and it’s usually not worth the effort. If people accept that, then the second parallel happens – authors can then start to acknowledge good ideas while still retaining the kudos for their own skills in writing. Writing books, like writing software, shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.

  • etbe

    Paul: Your first point will require a lot of consideration, but at this time I am very doubtful that we actually have 30 years of cultural experience. When I have attended lectures by people such as RMS who were involved 30 years ago their experiences seem very different to those of modern free software developers. Also RMS and other pioneers seem to have little connection to people in the 16-26 age range (who are probably more likely to give attitude than other age groups).

    Regarding the supposed danger of blog comments, JMS noted that an episode of Babylon 5 had to be significantly rewritten due to such an issue. It does seem unlikely that such a case would be successful if it ever made it to court. One of the many objections to this is that in terms of spreading ideas a comment on the author’s blog is no better than an article written in the local paper of the author’s home town. Another is that if such broad interpretations of copyright were permitted then Isaac Asimov’s estate would essentially own all fiction related to robots. It will be interesting when someone sues Corey Doctorow about such an issue.

    As for fan fiction and copyright, if a fan can claim credit for an idea taken from a fan-fiction work then surely the author has a greater claim to credit for the universe in which the fan-fiction work is set. In which case a license condition for writing fan-fiction could be the right for the original author to borrow ideas. It would be good if on occasion an author could bless a fan-fiction work and make it part of the canon.