Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fan Fiction, Culture, Matchsticks

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle recently about the producers of the BBC television series Sherlock having their actors read aloud from someone's erotic Sherlock-inspired fan-fiction at an official event for the upcoming launch of the fourth season. I'll not go into all of the details here, but the short version is that it is universally (and accurately) seen as an attempt to mock the fan-fiction writer and, as such, in bad form. The actors were uncomfortable, someone who loved the characters enough to write about them in her spare time was humiliated, and the hosts of the event now have egg on their collective faces. It's a lose-lose-lose. If one positive thing can come of it, that would be a discussion on the fading boundaries between fan-fiction and commercial fiction, between professional and amateur, and our overall cultural heritage.  There is a larger issue here than fan fiction. It's the question of who owns these characters and ideas themselves. We know who does legally, but I'm not sure who does morally.
Not this kind of fan fiction

What's most ironic about this incident, and what writer Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out in her take on the topic, is that the BBC series itself is, arguably as much "fan fiction" as the slash pieces they found it so very amusing to mock. Yes, I know that there's a legal lineage running back to the heirs of the Doyle estate, but that doesn't much interest me. Sherlock Holmes is, at present, a part of our culture as are Achilles, Superman and, most importantly, Mickey Mouse.

Why is Disney's famous rodent so important? Because he's arguably the one keeping the cultural commons from growing - at least in a legal perspective. One of the arguments presented to Congress in discussions on extending copyright protections first for fifty, and now for seventy-five years past the creator's death was the specter of commercial Mickey Mouse pornography. In reality, the fight was less about protecting the innocence of a fictitious rodent than it was about giving the corporation which now owns Walt Disney's work a perpetual cash-cow. It keeps the Mouse as the sole property of a corporation. Superman the property of the corporation which stole him from his original creator, and now the larger media conglomerate that owns them.  We, as a culture, are poorer for it. It wasn't always this way. I'm not an expert in ancient Greek intellectual property law, but I don't believe that Sophocles needed the permission of the Homer estate to write Ajax. (if anyone knows that he did, please correct me. I'd find that fascinating!)

As part of our heritage, these characters and ideas matter. It's a way of carrying on a conversation with the literature and culture which has come before us while speaking to the present generation. I mentioned Ajax in a snarky aside, but it was a then-modern take on  traditional Homeric values. Bringing Sherlock to the modern era might not be as artistically interesting, but it's very enjoyable and lets us reexamine some of the cultural assumptions from Arthur Conan Doyle's time.
It wasn't even a full
8-bits of greyscale

It isn't what I usually write myself, but I find some derivative work to be fascinating. Russian writer Kirill Yeskov wrote a fascinating (if somewhat awkwardly translated) retelling of The Lord of the Rings from the villain's perspective, casting Gandalf as a manipulative warmonger who was the real mover behind the concepts we see in Tolkein's books. Novelist Jacqueline Carey took a more commercially viable route and played the same reversal trick but with the serial numbers filed off in her The Sundering duology. This is the path that one needs to take if one wants to be commercial and doesn't own the rights. Sometimes it works; the TV medical drama House was arguably a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and someone famously turned some erotic Twilight fanfiction into an inexplicably popular treatise on grayscale (at least that's what I assume from the title. I'll confess to having never read the work in question).

I'll close with a bit of fiction; in her piece,  Kowal  stated that she'd welcome fan-stories in her Glamourist Histories universe. In that spirit, I've brought a fairy-tale character into her world, retelling a classic. For those not initiated, the Glamourist histories are regency-era romance novels with the addition of a bit of magic - the ability for some people to create illusions or "glamours". Some can even manipulate hear and cold, although at personal cost to their health.



Three Matches
by L Czhorat Suskin

Cold it was, so terribly cold in London, this long night late in the year without a summer. Cold infused the streets, cold slipped through thresholds of the coldmonger's guildhall in ironic discomfort but, most of all, cold soaked into the young lad's skin, muscle, into the very marrow of his bones. He was a coldmonger, a lucky one to have found work freezing an indoor skating rink and, at  nearly fourteen years, an old one. Today he felt old. He felt his nearly fourteen years the way an older man would feel the weight of decades, his body weakened by years of working the cold. Still, he had a roof in the guildhall and, thanks to this last job, a few coins in his pocket.

And He still had his dreams.

It was, after all, the year without a summer. The year Lord Vincent, glamourist to the Prince Regent himself visited London, reminder of all that the boy had dreampt of. Working glamour as art, delighting people with works of color and shapes rather than pure mechanical manipulation of heat and cold. He'd been practicing too, as much as he could with the strength he had remaining after the hours of drawing cold from the ether. Tonight's work had been particularly arduous; the guild's more educated benefactors explained why working cold is harder on a cold day, but that was all just words. The boy's reality was that it was cold.

It was on this cold night that he saw her. The matchstick girl. Younger even than he, walking on tiny naked feet blue with cold. The boy longed to be an artist; he saw the soot smeared around her eyes, not quite hiding deep purple bruises. From across the street he saw her shiver with her whole body. Saw her stop, desperately, pitifully cupping her hands around a match, trembling hands fumbling to strike it. He saw and, without thinking, reached into the ether, flicked a strand across the match and touched it to flame. 

The faintest hint of a smile touched the girls lips. Oh, how the boy pitied one who could be cheered by something so small. He struggled against the exhaustion in his own weakened body, pulled against strands of ether to paint within the flame a pleasant domestic scene. A warm fireplace, a table laden with food. Peace. The glamoured flames burned brightly, illuminating genuine joy in the girl's face, only to be extinguished as the candleflame bit her finger and went out.

She lit a second match. The glamourist boy was ready now, this time with a festive holiday scene. A magnificent Christmas tree festooned with glass ornaments, gaily wrapped presents beneath, and an angelic figure atop. The little girl reached her fingers into the image as the boy sank to his knees, overtaxed by the effort of maintaining the illusion.

Tears on her face, the girl lit a third match. She no longer felt the chill creeping into her bones, her poor frozen feet, no longer felt much of anything at all. She longed for the flame. For the next vision. The boy saw her from across the street, his vision fading and narrowing. Gone were the streets, the few people who'd take no notice of such wretched creatures as himself and the match-girl. The snow, the buildings... all faded. There was just him and, across the street, the girl. And her final match.

In the flame he painted a picture of the angelic figure from atop the holiday tree. Tears blurred his vision as he imbued the figure with as realistic color, as much art, as was in him. As the boy lost conciousness, the image unravelled, leaving a haze of pure light, then nothing. A smile touched his lips as the young girl whispered, "take me... take me with you."

Their bodies were found late the next morning, cold and lifeless. They were buried in a mass grave, nobody knowing that the girl had found a moment of peace and the boy had died an artist, as he'd wished to have lived.


  1. This is great. That is one of my favourite fairytales, and your retelling does it justice. (The information that preceded the fairytale was also interesting!)

  2. What a beautiful Christmas gift of a story.

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  4. Thank you everyone for your kind words. I need to write more fiction; it's easy to get mired in the other stuff.

    Happy holidays to all.