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Monday 20 August 2001

It's Up To The Fans To Make The Internet A True "Final Encyclopedia"

by Jeff Berkwits

(Exclusive to Locus Online)

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 current problems."

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 forums—especially the unmoderated outlets—tend 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, 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 following issue.

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, 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."

Jeff Berkwits first learned about the passing of Poul Anderson and Douglas Adams from the Internet. Alternatively, he also read about the reported demise of Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols on two different mailing lists the same afternoon he'd conducted an interview with her (in truth, actress Persis Khambatta (Lt. Ilia from Star Trek: The Motion Picture) had passed away). When not mourning both real and rumored deaths, Jeff is a staff writer for Science Fiction Weekly ( and covers SF for numerous print periodicals including Filmfax and Outré.

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