Have you heard the latest dish from Hollywood? On Friends, Monica and Rachel are both pregnant! Dr. Susan Lewis is returning to ER, and she's going to marry Mark Greene. (You always knew they belonged together.) Speaking of ER, Dr. John Carter has a new love interest too: He's dating Walter Skinner from The X-Files, who has just broken off his three-way affair with Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.
Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker has gone over to the Dark Side—and I'm not talking about his infatuation with Han Solo, though that's as hot as ever. "Han turned his head, tipped my palm up, pressed his lips to the center of it. … His kiss connected with the core of me."
Sadly, we'll never see Luke and Han smooching on the big screen. Their torrid romance is occurring only in the fevered imagination of one pseudonymous Destina Fortunato, an acolyte of one of the oddest and most delightful subcultures on the Web: fan fiction. In "fanfic," as practitioners call it, devotees of a TV show, movie, or (less often) book write stories about its characters. They chronicle the alternative adventures of Xena, warrior princess; open the X files that Mulder and Scully don't dare touch; and fill in the back story to Star Wars Episode I.
Fanfic, like so much weirdness in American culture, is rooted in the '60s, though it has older antecedents. When Arthur Conan Doyle stopped publishing Sherlock Holmes stories, his readers wrote their own. Star Trek: The Original Series (or "TOS," in fanspeak) kick-started the fanfic vogue in the late '60s. Within a year of the show's debut, Trekkers were scribbling their own tales of Kirk and Spock, binding them in mimeographed zines, and handing them out at conventions. Fanfic communities rewrote Star Wars and TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch.
Fanfic used to be confined to fanatics who attended conventions and mailed their zines to several dozen (or, in rare cases, several hundred) subscribers. That zine industry still exists, but most fanfic has decamped to the Web. The Web has taken fanfic public, massively increasing the number of writers and readers. Today there are fanfic sites devoted to every TV show you have heard of and many you haven't. Star Trek's "fandom"—the show's fans—maintains hundreds of fanfic archives in every possible category: TOS, Deep Space 9, Ensign Chekov, Data, etc. Each archive may contain hundreds of stories. The Star Wars and X-Files fandoms are nearly as prolific. The X-Files fandom even issues annual literary awards—"The Spookys." Dozens of fanfic archives pay homage to Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Highlander, and ER. Blake's 7, an old British sci-fi series, enthralls writers. Due South, which concerns a Canadian Mountie, has a fanfic cult. So do The A-Team and Miami Vice.
M ost fanfic authors write short stories, but novels, screenplays, poems, and even songs (called "filks") are popular as well. (A "fan film" industry thrives, too: Click to learn more about it.) The quality of the writing varies. Some fics brim with misspellings, grammatical lapses, and risible dialogue. But many are surprisingly good, with excellent character sketches and vivid descriptions. Fanfic writers tend to be highly educated, and several fanfic writers have graduated to careers as science fiction novelists.
Some fanfics fill in plot holes left by lazy producers: A Spock half-brother appeared out of the blue in a late Star Trek movie. Fanfic writers responded by inventing a credible past for him. Other writers simply deliver extra episodes to junkies: When Millennium was canceled, loyal fans posted a whole new season of episodes. Still others explore alternate universes. What would happen if Luke joined the Dark Side? Fanfics frequently resurrect popular characters whom producers had rudely killed off.
Fanfics often celebrate peripheral characters who don't get the screen time they deserve: Writers have lavished millions of words on Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who cameos in the Star Wars series. Skinner, the minor boss on the X-Files, has won a rabid fanfic audience. "Crossover" fanfics drop characters from one show into another's universe. Mulder and Scully visit Buffy to investigate vampires. Benton Fraser, the Due South Mountie, teams with U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard—Tommy Lee Jones' character in The Fugitive—to hunt Canadian villains. In some fics reviled by veteran authors, fans act out their fantasies—seducing Obi-Wan Kenobi, for example—by inserting themselves into their stories. These stories are called "Mary Sues."
One surprising aspect of fanfic is its indifference to plot. The vast majority of its writers are women, and Deborah Tannenism pervades it. Most stories are much more attuned to emotional dynamics than narrative. MIT professor Henry Jenkins, the leading scholar of fanfic, notes that fans usually choose shows with a pair of closely bonded leads: Kirk and Spock, Mulder and Scully, Xena and Gabrielle, Starsky and Hutch. Fanfic writers pore over the relationship between the pair. One popular subgenre is "hurt-comfort," which explores what happens when one lead gets hurt and the other has to help him. Some X-Files fans write only " MSR" fics, their acronym for "Mulder-Scully Relationship."
The obsession with emotional intensity has spawned "slash," the most flamboyant genre and perhaps the weirdest prose in America today. "Slash" fanfic describes, in vivid detail, homosexual relationships between characters such as Starsky and Hutch or Kirk and Spock. (Click for a history and discussion of "slash."Definitely click.)