In my previous Locus Online commentary (Brickbats and Mortar Shells: Will Science Fiction Survive the Dot-com Implosion?), I detailed the shrinking presence of commercial SF-oriented outlets on the World Wide Web. Among the
many responses engendered by that column were arguments that, rather than
restricting information, the Internet actually furthers the sharing of
knowledge among science fiction aficionados. Well, there's little question
that more SF news travels more quickly among "wired" fans than ever before.
Yet how trustworthy are those electronic dispatches, and do the details they
contain really add to the overall advancement of the field?
Experts have predicted for some time that the Internet will serve as an
immense worldwide repository of facts, figures and statistics. This concept
closely echoes an idea advanced during the mid-1980s by famed SF writer
Gordon R. Dickson, who envisioned in The Final Encyclopedia a computer
that contained every iota of wisdom accumulated throughout history. However,
as part of a syndicated newspaper article concerning Microsoft co-founder
Paul Allen's attempt at creating an Internet-based "Final Encyclopedia," Dan
Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News recently noted, "The Net is bulging
with information that comes from the minds of individuals who create their
own Web sites, people who have something to add to the knowledge storehouse.
[Unfortunately,] much of that will be worthless, which is one of the Net's
In light of the demise of so many key SF URLs within the past few months, it
has become increasingly difficult to determine what's worthwhile, what's
outright rubbish, or, more insidiously, what looks convincing but is really
only sly marketing by an entity (either an individual or a company) that
simply wants to push a particular product or agenda. For example, a writer's
official site is presumably going to deliver reliable biographical and
bibliographical information, but it's doubtful that a visitor will ever find
a negative review, even if a given novel or short story is genuinely
dreadful. Meanwhile, although disapproving viewpoints are likely to be
voiced more readily on an author's fan site or newsgroup, many of these
forums still remain rather narrow-minded.
Incidentally, newsgroups, mailing lists and message boards are other forms
of communication that, though not directly addressed in the earlier
commentary, are important informational components of the Internet. It can
convincingly be argued that nowadays, rather than getting news updates
through Web sites, most savvy science fiction buffs instead obtain the bulk
of their SF data through these alternative electronic means. Many fans
assuredly consider these sources a godsend, as they allow for the almost
instantaneous sharing of extraordinary amounts of minutiae concerning the
genre. And there certainly is some truth to that assessment: Copious
quantities of science fiction news do swiftly travel via these networks. On
the other hand, along with the indisputably meaningful tidbits, many of the
items posted on such forumsespecially the unmoderated outletstend to be
unsubstantiated rumors or biased opinion. Without a professional editor to
filter out the chatter, one must often endure dozens of insignificant or
absurd messages before finding relevant and meaningful information.
Concurrently, readers must also suffer through the dreaded "topic creep,"
whereby the subject line of an interesting string of exchanges remains long
after the comments contained within that heading have drifted to tangential
(and oftentimes entirely unrelated) areas.
Nonetheless, it's clear that, with almost all of the well-heeled players
either cutting back or altogether eliminating their presence on the World
Wide Web, when it comes to gleaning SF data from the Internet it's up to the
fans to both provide and police the flow of information. With few exceptions
(notably SciFi.com), the most fulfilling genre sites on the Web today are
the direct result of the efforts of dedicated science fiction devotees
rather than affluent corporations. As David Hartwell observed not long ago
in a New York Review of Science Fiction editorial, "It is not business at
all, but the work of creative individuals who control the means of
production and work sometimes insanely hard in their spare time, and often
steal time from their day jobs, to design and maintain Web sites without
producing a shred of income from them. And this includes some of the biggest
and best SF Web sites."
Such devoted involvement from genre enthusiasts isn't unexpected, as science
fiction has a long and distinguished history of active participation by both
readers and authors. However, the ability of almost anyone to inexpensively
create a Web site (or submit to a mailing list or newsgroup) carries
tremendous opportunities and risks.
In the old days, the truly dedicated SF buff mimeographed or photocopied a
limited number of issues of his or her fanzine and then distributed them to
contributors, friends and a few other interested parties. That small group
of "subscribers" would write in with convention reports, reviews, personal
columns or letters of comment, which would then serve as the basis of the
Today, a simple online post requires only a few swift keystrokes. As a
result, valuable viewpoints that might never have previously surfaced are
available to millions of potential readers. At the same time, it's also much
more difficult to perceive the true purpose of the author (especially if the
individual uses multiple e-mail aliases or only contributes infrequently):
Is this person posting a controversial item for meaningful debate, or does
he or she have a personal stake in the argument? Is the message meant to
stimulate sincere thought, or simply to incite a reaction?
Despite these concerns, the Internet is obviously a boon for SF devotees.
While the powers-that-be behind the few remaining commercial science fiction
URLs re-position themselves into more passive roles (functioning as
supplementary elements of a multimedia marketing mix or simply as
interactive "SF billboards along the information superhighway"), fans have
re-emerged as the genre's driving force. From the vigorous debates that take
place in newsgroups and mailing lists to the efforts of those individuals
behind such non-professional sites as SFSite.com, SciFiDimensions.com and
Fantastica Daily (among others), it's clear that, now that the pie-in-the-sky profiteers have abandoned the Web, it is the SF proletariat
who will ultimately generate the genre's true "Final Encyclopedia."