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A Weird Planet
You could begin a history of fan fiction in any number of places, but one of them is The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a TV show about the agents of an international espionage organization called the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. It ran for four seasons, 1964 to '68, and although it was never a runaway hit it peaked at No. 13 in 1965 it had another, less easily definable quality. It attracted not just viewers but fans: people for whom the world in which The Man from U.N.C.L.E. took place felt so real that it seemed to have a life beyond the show, as if you could turn the camera around and see not a TV studio but an entire planet populated by men, women and children from U.N.C.L.E. The fans published mimeographed and xeroxed fanzines about it, and a few of the zines ran original stories that were set there.
The generic term for the fan culture organized around any given media franchise is a fandom. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (it's sometimes abbreviated to Muncle) fandom provided a template for what was to come. Star Trek went on the air in 1966, and the first Star Trek fanzine appeared in 1967. It bore the instantly definitive title Spockanalia.
Even back then it was apparent that fan fiction was not just an homage to the glory of the original but also a reaction to it. It was about finding the boundaries that the original couldn't or wouldn't break, and breaking them. Issue No. 3 of Spockanalia included a story called "Visit to a Weird Planet," in which Kirk, Spock and Bones are transported to the set where Star Trek is being filmed and get confused with the actors who play them (Bones: "I'm a doctor, not an actor!"). Spockanalia No. 4 ran a story in which Spock has an affair with a fellow Federation officer. These were homages to Star Trek, but at the same time they were critiques: I love the show, but what if it went further? What happens if I press this big, shiny, red button that says "Do not press"?
It was a way to bring to light hidden subtexts that the show couldn't address. For example, what if the tense, rivalrous friendship between Kirk and Spock included an undercurrent of sexual attraction? That's not an idea Hollywood could touch, but in 1974 an adults-only Star Trek zine called Grup published a story called "A Fragment Out of Time," which featured Kirk and Spock in a gay love scene. (The characters are unnamed but recognizable, and anyway the illustrations give them away.)
The premise of "A Fragment Out of Time" became so popular that it acquired a shorthand label: Kirk/Spock, or just K/S, or eventually just slash. Slash has since become a generic term for any fan fiction that pairs two same-sex characters, be they Holmes/Watson or Cagney/Lacey or Snape/Harry. It can be a verb, something you can do: if you have written a story in which Edward and Jacob from Twilight get together, you have slashed them.
There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about people who write fan fiction and why they write it, so let's knock off a few of them right up front. Fan-fiction writers are not pornographers. (This perception is so pervasive that in order to avoid confusing their friends and colleagues, many of the people interviewed for this article declined to be identified by their real names.) There's plenty of sex in fan fiction, but it's only a small part of the picture. Fan-fiction writers aren't plagiarists who can't come up with their own ideas, and they're not all amateurs. Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire novels are best sellers and have been optioned by Peter Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings movies, writes fan fiction. "Fanfic writing isn't work, it's joyful play," she says. "The problem is that for most people, any kind of writing looks like work to them, so they get confused why anyone would want to write fanfic instead of original professional material, even though they don't have any problem understanding why someone would want to mess around on a guitar playing Simon and Garfunkel."