It was only a couple of weeks ago that I saw it. It was the kind of book that any explorer would love - a guide to everything you needed to know about a distant and exotic place. It told you all about its curious geological features, its wildlife, which plants were edible, and even what the writers felt this place could teach us about our world.
It was a survival guide, perhaps the most practical tool imaginable if you chose to visit a place that was still untamed.
There was just one catch - it was for the planet Pandora, from the film Avatar.
How did we get to this? When you stop and think about it, isn't it strange that we live in a world where every film can have a massive number of tie-ins that purport to deepen the world we've just experienced? And yet, this kind of feature has been commonplace for decades. I have a Doctor Who Technical Manual from the 1970s that includes the schematics of a Dalek, as well as a Star Trek episode guide dating from the year of my birth!
In this article, I'm going to take you on a whistle-stop tour of fandom, exploring the history behind the fandoms we love so dearly. I'm going to touch on just some of the most topical examples, helping us to understand the broad patterns and trends that have shaped fandom. Non-fans are often condescending towards fandoms, but perhaps - just perhaps - this will help us appreciate fandom for what it truly is...
STAGE ONE: LEGENDS
To find the origin of 'fandom,' I think you have to go back to the ancient world. Back then, there were no printing presses, and few people were trained in writing and reading. After all, ink and parchment were tremendously expensive! In spite of this, you still had a sort of 'continuous narrative,' but it tended to be religious, with legendary figures such as Hercules, and communicated orally. A handful of scholars documented written versions of these traditions - Homer's The Illiad springs to mind - but generally only priests kept the written copies.
Back then, you can picture the scene; a family gathered around their wood-fire, the children begging their parents to tell them more about the adventures of their favourite heroes. How would Hercules deal with that lion? How would the Minotaur be defeated? Decades later, the roles would be reversed, and they would be telling their children those same tales - but, perhaps, with the fogging of memory, the details would change.
It's doubtful that there was anything like an 'official' version of most of these oral traditions - even those that wound up written down wouldn't be readable by the masses, who lacked the ability to read.
Wherever you look in history, you find these same oral traditions; and, as the centuries pass, these traditions tend to merge with one another. The original legends of Camelot, for example, didn't feature Merlin; and who knows how the legends of Robin Hood began to twist together!
There was, however, one exception to this rule. Among the well-educated, it was a show of education - that expensive luxury - that drove people to study the poets. To be able to quote the poets was the mark of a well-bred man (precious few women were educated), and to misquote was a thing of shame. This was the case pretty much from the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, when even the Apostle Paul could incorporate quotes from the poets in the letters that would become part of the Bible.
But the invention of the printing press began to change everything. The first books were marketed purely towards the wealthy, but, as printing became cheaper, societies began to believe that all should be educated to read. By the late Victorian era, fandom proper was about to be born.
STAGE TWO: SHERLOCK HOLMES
His name was Sherlock Holmes. Oh, sure, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the one who wrote his adventures, but Sherlock Holmes was the one seen as a hero. Conan Doyle's detective was an instant hit, with his intellectual imperialism a perfect reflection of Victorian England. Conan Doyle himself would grow to hate the character, who he felt was a distraction from his more serious work, but it was Holmes to whom the British public were devoted. At last, in "The Final Problem," Conan Doyle killed his hero off - and the whole country went into mourning!
Swamped by fan-mail desperately asking for Holmes to be resurrected, Conan Doyle found that nothing else he wrote would sell. Finally, under pressure from his publisher, he relented, and found a way out. So Sherlock Holmes continued to adventure until Conan Doyle's death, and remains a legend to this day.
But Sherlock Holmes was treated in a far different way to heroes of previous times. His adventures were printed in ink, unforgettable and unchangeable, and fans would pore over details for hints of Holmes' life and habits. When Conan Doyle first began to write these stories, it was permissible for Holmes to have a heroin habit, with hints that it might even be an addiction; as the adventures went on, and social attitudes towards the drug changed, Conan Doyle had Watson acknowledge that he'd persuaded Holmes to beat this habit. That tiny detail of Holmes' life was important, in a way no fine detail of a hero's life had ever been before - important enough to have to change.
It is in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes that we begin to find those first hints of continuity. What has been written before, cannot simply be ignored; this story stands upon the foundations of the last, and some sort of loose chronology of events is important. I do say loose; Conan Doyle's very conceit - that Watson was publishing notes from his files - meant that he had free rein to choose events from any time in Holmes' career. That frequently led to slip-ups, but the fact that these were noticed - and pretty early on - is rather remarkable.
STAGE THREE: FEATURING THE SAINT
The next writer to really pick up on this was Leslie Charteris, whose flamboyant character Simon Templar captured the imaginations of readers in both England and the United States. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Templar - who rejoiced in the nom du guerre of The Saint - was an outlaw, a vigilante in the pattern of Robin Hood. He robbed from the robbers, he swindled the swindlers, and he had a gay old time doing it, too. He was every man's daydream - the swashbuckling figure who stands against all that is evil, white teeth gleaming in cheerful grin, a beautiful girl at the end of every adventure. And female readers were just as entertained, imagining themselves as the fortunate girl.
Charteris' writing style was as flamboyant as his character, and he irradiated each adventure with a sense of sheer, unadulterated joy. And yet, as The Saint books rolled on relentlessly, Charteris noticed that something odd was happening. He was receiving fan mail asking about the most obscure things - when was The Saint born? What was his favourite breakfast? How had the Saint and Patricia Holm, his frequent love interest, first met, why was he so unfaithful to her, and what did Patricia feel about it all? Readers wanted to know everything, and Charteris reflected that he sometimes felt as though it were the Saint who was a real person, and Leslie Charteris who was the literary myth!
Feeding the fandom, Charteris simply shrugged and replied, "He hasn't told me." He would explore those questions and the countless others if they ever became relevant to the tale he was writing at the time, and otherwise the fans could like it or lump it. But even Charteris noticed that something odd was happening - and tied it together with the same fannish reaction to Sherlock Holmes.
STAGE FOUR: NEW TECHNOLOGY
Changes in technology brought whole new channels for storytelling - radio shows and movies. But, for all fans embraced these new mediums, they didn't tend to obsess over them in the way we do today. The reason was simple; back when these channels were new, there was a fundamental difference between them and everything that had gone before.
An oral tradition can be repeated; a book can be reread. But, at first, you couldn't record and re-watch these new channels. You experienced them, enjoyed them, and waited for the next installment. But that moment was gone, lost in the mists of time, and nobody forced any real sense of continuity. So Superman's origins and backstory could subtly change in his 1940s-1950s radio shows, and even his powers could change - moving on from being "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" to being able to fly.
Printing was becoming ever cheaper, and with this came the rise of comic books. Comic books weren't really taken seriously back in those early days. The writers and artists didn't believe they were creating anything lasting - they were happy just to get the next issue out. And what continuity there was, was essentially a ham-fisted attempt to create a shared universe in the hopes of cross-promoting across the lines. But the likes of Stan Lee were surprised to find that the fans cared far more than they did; Marvel famously created the No-Prize, a reward for the eagle-eyed reader who had spotted a flaw in the comic, and somehow explained it. The bulk of these No-Prizes were awarded for identifying and fixing continuity errors.
Meanwhile, fiction writers began to see the opportunity to write in their own personal continuities. They could tell ongoing stories, and incredible men like Arthur C. Clarke used the cheap printing to mass-distribute their books. To say they were successful would be an understatement; they were following hot on the heels of Charteris and Conan Doyle. Some writers would take world-building to a whole new level, with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien even creating the languages of Middle Earth, which he detailed in his popular series The Lord of the Rings.
Of course, technology continued to advance, and it became possible to revisit the films - but for all that, fandom really became the preserve of the television series. Over in the United States, Star Trek introduced viewers to the adventures of the bold Captain James T. Kirk and the loyal crew of the starship Enterprise. Fans were hooked. And in the UK, the BBC launched Doctor Who, to similar effect. These series were frequently supported by episodes guides, technical plans of spaceships and alien races, and novelisations that loosely detailed the adventures in another format. As before, though, the television crews didn't really grasp what was happening. In the 1970s, the BBC happily wiped episodes of Doctor Who in order to clear space in their buildings, completely ignorant of the significance of the growing fandom they continued to feed.
STAGE FIVE: THE LUNATICS TAKE OVER THE ASYLUM
Things would begin to change when the fans took charge. In comics, a generation of comic book lovers stepped into the industry, and for them continuity was important. They happily referenced all that had gone before, using the past adventures as a blueprint for the present. While they weren't averse to rewriting what they felt hadn't worked, they also didn't want to overwrite what they had loved. And, significantly, they wanted their characters to grow with them. So characters lived, loved, and even died - most notably Spider-Man's long-standing love interest Gwen Stacy, a comic that changed the industry forever. No longer did the writers and artists think that the characters should stay the same; and with change, came the ever-stronger hand of continuity.
But notice the change. Comics were no longer about the writers - Stan Lee's Bullpen would disappear with time - but about the characters. These writers understood that they were part of a race, and that they only held the baton for a time. In a strange way, they understood the genre better than the incredible men who had first created it. Oh, to be sure, some railed against that; Chris Claremont, for example, became synonymous with the X-Men from 1976 through to 1991, when he was finally pushed out by Marvel's office politics. But even he felt that the characters and concepts he was playing with mattered, and it was his love of those characters - not just his ego - that made him continue to write.
Over on the TV screens, both Star Trek and Doctor Who were taken over by fans. Star Trek became the blueprint for a whole new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which would deepen the continuity of the universe. Trekkies pored over the details, and these fans then went on to write their own episodes! But for Doctor Who, the experience was damaging; what appealed to someone brought up on a diet of Doctor Who didn't appeal to a new viewer, and the show began to decline until it was sadly cancelled in 1991.
Another change was taking place. First actors became celebrities, and then writers and even comic book artists. Fans began to gather at conventions, desperate for the chance to meet their heroes, and these would eventually reach the scale of the Comic Cons. But the reality was, these 'heroes' were only known because they had been associated with the franchise that the fans loved; a fan who adored Tom Baker's era as Doctor Who would follow Doctor Who, not Tom Baker. When Chris Claremont left the X-Men in 1991, readers blinked and carried on reading, unaffected. One actor who played the Doctor in Doctor Who compared it to being a moon; he reflected the light of the show he had been in, but was not a source of light in his own right.
STAGE SIX: THE BIRTH OF CANON
Movies, too, had become serials - with hits like George Lucas' Star Wars. While previous series had often been loosely connected, the Star Wars Original Trilogy wove a single narrative, and did it well. Even before The Empire Strikes Back had been released, "Star Wars" had made its way into different formats - Alan Dean Foster's novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye purported to tell the continuing story of the rebels. Granted, as the Original Trilogy went on, that novel began to sit ever more uncomfortably, particularly as it deepened the Luke and Leia romance that was doomed when Return of the Jedi revealed the two were brother and sister!
"Star Wars" was a game-changer, in that it was the first fandom to truly embrace multiple channels. For "Star Wars", everything was canon, and fans could draw upon any source - from the back of an action figure's box to a computer game plot. As the so-called Expanded Universe became ever more varied, so it became ever-harder to keep track, and the fans became ever-prouder of their work to hold the 'canon' together. The fact that the word 'canon' came to be applied (it's original meaning is religious, referring to the books accepted as being part of the Bible!) illustrates how devoted fans became to this.
Other franchises wisely avoided this trap. For Star Trek, the canon was on the screens; the novels and comics were treated as 'non-canon'. Comics and movies trod their own paths, although popular movies - such as Superman II - wound up inspiring many a comic, and vice versa.
STAGE SEVEN: THE INTERNET AGE
Previously, it had been hard to become an ultra-fan. If you wanted to truly understand the Marvel Universe, you had to invest a massive amount of time in buying and analysing comics - or else you had to pick up The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe (in spite of being called 'official', it was actually written by the fans, for the fans, and many of its attempts to explain away mutant powers remain pseudoscience that the comics have never acknowledged). But the internet changed all this. First of all, the internet provided an opportunity to read and reread the details; as tools like Wikipedia were developed, it also gave fans a semi-definitive tool to help them navigate the chronologies and continuities they loved.
The internet seemed to awaken a hunger and thirst for knowledge that couldn't be sated. Where before, only series had seen books, handbooks, technical manuals, and the like, now the more successful stand-alone movies saw them. So, for example, Avatar got the Survival Handbook that I mentioned at the beginning of this article!
More significantly, though, the internet gave fans an opportunity to meet and interact. So fans could spot a continuity gap and debate it in forums, trading ideas (with varying degrees of respect and creativity). Some fans enjoyed discussion, others insisted that their view was the right one, and the curious notion of the 'real fan' began to appear - "If you were a real fan, you'd think the same way that I do!" During heated debates, the canon would be brought out as evidence, leading to the frequent pun, "Canon go boom!" Still, the sharing of knowledge meant that fans could find like-minded social groups, and be forever increasing the depth of their knowledge.
Modern fandom seems divided on fine points; how much one channel should mirror another. Should a film slavishly follow the plot of a book? How much depth should a novelisation add to the original movie? how much should a Cinematic Universe reshape the comic books that inspired it? Every fan has a different opinion, and the discussion often gets hot-tempered.
Producers, writers and artists alike have recognised this sea change in fandom. No longer is it enough to write a book; now, writing a book means setting up the Facebook pages! Film trailers are reviewed in the minutiae, and companies and writers both desperately try to control the flow of information. Fox Studios, for instance, are well-known for their attempts to use copyright law to pull spoilers back off the internet, while Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series would have enjoyed another book (from Edward's perspective) had a 'friend' not leaked a draft online.
Other companies, though, use the internet far more creatively. Marvel bigwig Tom Brevoort happily uses Tumblr to his advantage, while comic book writer Brian Bendis has a reputation for use of gifs. Kelly Sue DeConnick, who reinvented Captain Marvel so effectively, runs a Facebook fan-group dedicated to the character. Film directors such as Bryan Singer leak hints and teasers to keep interest in their movies high. And in some cases, social media has even created whole new fandoms; The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, for example, retold Pride & Prejudice as a YouTube web-diary, with associated Facebook, Instagram and Twitter profiles for the characters!
Nowadays, it's a serious thing to be a fan. To be a fan may mean you enjoyed a movie - or it may mean you want to debate its finer points, comparing its continuity with one earlier in a series. To be a fan may mean buying a Director's Cut with extra scenes, so you can better understand elements of the plot; it may mean picking up the strangest tie-ins imaginable, up to and including survival guides to an alien world; and it may mean becoming part of a community that shows every sign of flourishing.
To be a fan is to be part of a change in society, one driven by technology, and boldly going where no one has gone before.