Assignment Earth: Pilot DVD Commentary, Composing, 29/09/2013

You can probably figure out by now that my imagined Assignment: Earth essays are essentially fanfic. The fact that I’ve labelled them such, I would say, gives the game away. So you might wonder why, on a blog that so often discusses philosophical reading, writing, and interpretation, a bunch of fanfic started showing up.

Well, even though I don’t write about it very much, my other career is as a fiction writer. It’s just an accident of timing that I don’t write about my fiction work as much as my philosophical work right now. Here are the main causes: I’m in the middle of tenure-track job application season, which focusses a lot of my energy on planning philosophical projects; related to this, a post-doctoral opportunity in philosophy of biology appeared at the last minute, and I had to adapt some of the research I had done on evolutionary theory during my dissertation work to this proposal; I’m also brainstorming ideas for articles to send to professional journals to catch up on the year I spent falling behind on my output working ten hours per day at an answering service; and my fiction work is between projects, having a novella with my editors and waiting to hear back on whether an older novel manuscript will be published from a company in Newfoundland.

That’s a lot of causes. But they leave unanswered why I’m writing weekend fanfic. A couple of years ago, I never would have thought of putting these kinds of ideas in a public forum, even one as modest as a blog. I’d write a few comments about “What might have been” on a few of my friends’ far more technically impressive science-fiction blogs. But I’d never really explore the ideas in detail in a forum specifically dedicated to me. Then I learned a few things about how fanfic operates that can actually be useful as a writer.

Most of the stereotypes of fanfic writers is that they’re clinically insane. A couple of recent Shortpacked! comics give probably the best illustration. But that isn’t how all of it works. When writers whose fiction moves in sci-fi circles are brainstorming ideas or looking to relax, they sometimes play with characters that they already know well from other franchises or worlds. I’ll give you one example: Kate Orman, one of the most acclaimed novelists of the Virgin Publishing line of Doctor Who from the 1990s, writes fan-fiction. This is a form that’s a mark of obsessives, but also works quite well as a practice for storytelling. You take characters that are already established and known, then work out a new story for them. It’s precisely what writers-for-hire do when they work for a series that’s new to them. They get to know the characters, come up with a plot that’s plausible for that world, and get to work. Every brilliant one-off story for a television series is just fanfic until the commission check gets written.

I know I'm not supposed to like Roberto Bolaño because he's
so trendy, and only hipsters like Bolaño, and he was really
an asshole, and kind of misogynist, and he's only cool
because the New York Review of Books said so. Screw you.
His work is intricate, politically astute, hilarious in its satire,
emotionally moving, and after you read it he makes even a
decaying urban pit feel like a place where poetry can happen.
Of course, I’m not writing actual fictional stories or scripts for Assignment: Earth. I’m describing plots and narrative developments. The literary form is different, but it also has a high pedigree: the fake encyclopedia. Some of Jorge Borges (A Universal History of Iniquity) and Roberto Bolaño’s (Nazi Literature in the Americas) best and most influential work was in this style. Each book is a collection of false biographies and fictional histories of imagined people. Bolaño’s has the most political bite, which I’ve always enjoyed in an author: he writes an encyclopedia of a loosely connected movement of fascist or fascism-sympathetic authors from North and South (mostly South) America. 

My Assignment: Earth pastiches will work something like this. The story guide to the production of a television series that never happened. Who knows? Maybe I’ll spin it out into a fictional television reference guide, spinning fictional characters and adaptations of real people from the American television industry in the early 1970s into a bizarre kind of novel that depicts that strange period in that society through the lens of a television show that almost, but never was.

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