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Collapse of a fictitious fanfic community, December 21, 2021
My initial thoughts on APBW rambled a bit. It brought up a lot of ideas that swirled around. They took a while to settle. It's a very ambitious work, and I'm not surprised it co-won the Golden Banana. But I'm also not surprised it placed highly, as I think it was rewarding to go through even though I only went in for part of its experience. It's about an online fan-community for young adult fanfiction that blows apart when the author of the books insults someone who's a big fan of theirs. In this case, it's GT McMillan, author of the Nebula series. To me, the GT sort of lampshades JK Rowling's hot takes on Twitter and fans' disappointment.
But I think it's more than just frustration with a Rowling clone. They get relatively little text compared to you and your friends. Overall, APBW helped me realize how much stability some online communities have, because with competent, sane adults in charge and some simple rules, along with punishment for trollish "look how these rules aren't perfect," really terrible things don't happen. But then again, these communities have decentralized power. For instance, the SBNation group of blogs knows the college athletes they cheer for are, well, only twenty or so, and they make mistakes. Or they know the commissioners of their favorite league aren't there out of altruism. Or they can see the good and bad sides of their favorite or most hated coaches. And the rules are simple: no bigotry, no flaming, no illegal streaming links. They work. I'll be comparing things in this review, because I had a lot of moments saying "Well, life goes on, right?" Though it sort of doesn't.
When you are young, that all is a lot tougher, even without trolls around. Any chaotic event throws things into turmoil, especially when an adult precipitates it, because adults don't DO these things, right? Especially one that could write such cool books that really stick it to bad guys?
Well, GT McMillan DOES do something. Not right away, though. APBW is told through the lens of an aspiring fanfic writer who blogs a lot on tumblr. You're amazed at the people who write more and, apparently, better than you do. But you'd like to try. You have friends you reblog and like and so forth, but you quickly realize they're at cross-purposes with each other. Some friends have troubles that get reblogged, both trivial and serious. Some friends just post for attention. Your reactions to this can get you blocked. I wound up completely ignoring the @brunova-official fanfic account, as I figured any drama with romantic fanfiction between Bruno and Gali, the two most popular characters (I didn't want to worry about the details of the work-within-a-work,) and I still made enough connections. I was amused to find the author's comments in the source, explaining how following and rehashing that sort of thing got you lots of likes, just because.
So I did all right with the whole writing racket. Despite my character's reticence and worry everyone was better than they were, I kept racking up likes, as my character paged through the five physical senses for ideas ("What do you think/smell/see/hear/feel/taste?") and my character wrote stuff down. This was meant to be mechanical and formulated on the player-character's just plowing through and doing what they were told in English class, when really they want to do so much more. People assure the PC that it's all so good and so forth. Then the pivotal moment comes. McMillan doesn't just cut down any fan but one who really looked up to McMillan. Others who did so, too, are confused. Some of your friends proclaim McMillan "over," even as the actors and actresses of the movie based on the series disagree. There's a split among fans with big followings, too, that goes beyond "Who's the coolest character?" Claire/Shadow-Protectrix, a big fanfic writer who organizes NebulaCon, comes down on McMillan's side (ironic, given their screen name) when your friend Luna is attacked by GT McMillan, prompting more attention than Luna ever wanted. She winds up deleting her account and starting a new one and not even asking for reblogs in support of her.
NebulaCon's largely organized by adults, too, or at least Internet friends who seem grown-up for their age! Most of whom are nice, but some of whom let the kids know who's in charge. And with every pronouncement of Claire's that she has to scale back, I certainly feared NebulaCon would be canceled. Because NebulaCon is only once a year, as opposed to twelve fall weekends for football, where fans of opposing blogs on SBNation get together for more than just the obligatory "preview with the enemy." They take pictures. They even share loss and big life moments. It can happen every week, even between fans of archrivals. And stuff like this shows the best of Internet fandom, of people getting together and helping each other through disappointment, of empathizing and saying "what if it happened to me?"
It's pretty clear the downside of the McMillan community collapsing is much higher for its members than for adult sports fans. And it's not just pro- or anti-McMillan. There's "we should've known it all along" and "I still can't believe it" among the antis. At one point, the main character wrestles with a passage that discusses not being false to yourself and how it was interpreted as pro-trans, but after MacMillan's words, they realize they maybe saw what they wanted to. This parallels fans tired of a losing coach, in a sports community. Some think they can still right the ship, some see the signs in retrospect, and flame wars start. But the stakes are higher, because when you're younger and don't know certain mind game tricks jerks play, and you have to hold on to what's there and be glad there's only so much trolling. You don't even feel you can speak out against jerks who like what you like, because on balance, they've been a positive, right? And it may seem there is no plan B if your group of book-loving friends collapses. The author touches on this by having some characters say "Hey! I found this cool KPop group." Which is different from what you'd expect, logically, such as "hey, there's another great book series." But in that moment I realized both you-the-character and your friends wanted to say "I don't want to lose you as a friend" but you didn't want to seem that desperate.
And, of course, you will need to stay together. Good things will end. As you write your final fanfic, you-the-character are far too aware the fourth wall break you make is as mechanical as checking off the five senses and "think" for writing prompts, and it's done before, and it will be done again, splitting community or not, because it's part of growing and moving on. You actually do finish your fanfic and go out on a high. That, along with trying to support your friend McMillan called out, is all you can do, especially when McMillan doubles down. (Well, actually, you can side with Claire. I didn't have the heart.) The older fans who orphaned their fanfiction–well, you get it now, you didn't see how they could stop if they had this gift, surely they could've just glided into a pretty-good ending sheerly out of momentum. You figured people just kept having stuff to say, and they don't. I had a similar thing happen when writing game guides at GameFAQs. I realized I was going to run out of motivation or games, and I also realized YouTube might become a Very Big Thing. I eventually just had a list of games left that would up my total word-count. I moved on, slower than I should've, of course.
It's difficult when a community dissolves, big or small, but it's also so nice to cross paths again. Still, you just don't think you will, and while that's out of the scope of APBW, I'd like to think the narrator plants the seeds for that, despite NebulaCon being canceled. They'll find other interests. I suppose it's the same sort of thing as a first crush, except, well, it's about having lots and lots of friends that evaporate, or you know you won't be able to keep track of them all.
Playing through once was exhausting. I had trouble remembering which player in the canon was which, and I also had to brush up on which of your blogmates did what. But it was the first of this sort of writing I'd seen in this form, and I found it amazingly effective for getting me to sit down and thing. I had a lot to say, and on reflection, it might not seem relevant now, but it filled a place that other IFComp games didn't come close to filling. So I think it was overall very successful as a story and an interesting world, as well as a reminder of all the stories I wanted to write but never quite did.
The author had a lot to say in their postmortem. There was a lot to read, so for the first time through, I simply looked at the source code to see some of the options and such that I missed. The check_blocked.txt file provided me with great amusement and demystified some of ChoiceScript. There still feels like a lot to unpack. But I found I was able to keep up with APBW, even if I had to ignore chunks, as I learned some terminology that made total sense once I read it.
APBW originally inspired some much more random, rambling thoughts that I don't want to pull out of the authors' forum. They're not really about APBW. But they were important to write and bury. They reminded me of the slow breakup of other communities and some I'm still shocked are there. APBW even reminded me to check some I thought were dead, and it's great to see them live on, or even see a 31-year-old say "hey, some people were really nice to me when I was clueless and 13, and I miss them." I remembered how I wrote game guides because I didn't feel qualified to write actual cool games, just as the narrator writes fanfic. (I still haven't written a graphical one!) I saw parallels between fanfic and some humorous features at SBNation sites, such as the ubiquitous Power Poll which ranks teams in a conference and compares them to characters from The Office or skits from I Think You Should Leave or, from one very creative person, stages of evolution. And it all works. It somehow pulls everyone together and reminds them of what they want to look at while they wait for the next game. Simple yet funny rules are established: on offtackleempire, a site for Big Ten team fans, you must punch in on Saturday if your team lost this weekend. There are inside jokes, but of course people with decent Google skills can figure them out, and they deserve to. And there are fanfic legends, people who wrote great stuff and are maybe retired now, but they drop in unexpectedly with a few hilarious tweets or essays.
This all is the result of a fully mature community and may not be as exciting as McMillan fan communities, but it's at least as rewarding. APBW made me realize how much we have, more than any impressive "look how far we've come and what we take for granted" speech could. For that I'm grateful. I'm even grateful for people I like only because we like the same team (just as APBW's characters like the same series and maybe even share a favorite book or character, and it's wonderful until they find other incompatibilities,) or even people I liked and then it fell apart. I even wound up sort of wishing I could explain this to some of the more upset APBW characters. Perhaps it's worth doing in real life.
It seems reasonable to critique APBW for problems of focus, or of certain things being too generic, but it's wildly ambitious and hits the mark often enough that I, a layman to fanfic, enjoyed it much better than more polished traditional efforts which seemed to fit in a nice box. Once I got into it, it felt like something someone would have done eventually, and I'm glad it got done so well. And it reminded me of all the things that could've gone wrong but didn't. It hurt when longtime Purdue basketball head coach Gene Keady laughed as he endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, a man Keady would've kicked off the team after a week on general principles. I was disappointed with the accusations swirling around Kingdom of Loathing's co-creator and how this forced a much more serious view of the nightcap you drink to get drunk with your turns gone at day's end. And I'm glad I didn't know about Roald Dahl's dark side until he was an adult. Yet at the same time, any one of these is the sort of growing-up experience I'd have loved to have other people around for, even if things fell apart at the end. APBW captured that and more for me, and thus, I value it.