You know we’re past the midpoint of summer when Comic-Con is back in the news, with the usual coverage of big announcements, horrendous lines, and occasional bad behavior at the San Diego Convention Center. Comic-Con, of course, is a major business event these days, with the few remaining aficionados of comics themselves shuttled aside into remote floors and tiny conference rooms. Instead of a refuge for a subculture, it’s the headquarters of the monoculture, an overpowering declaration that we’re all nerds now, at least from the point of view of the major movie studios. As it happens, I ended up watching the 1997 documentary Trekkies for the first time over the weekend. And although the film is full of moments—as when we meet dentist Denis Bourguinon, whose office, Star Base Dental, looks like one of William Shatner’s fever dreams—when we seem to have strayed into Christopher Guest territory, it feels now like a bittersweet paean to something lost forever. (I ended up watching it, incidentally, because it was one of the only movies available at the beach house my wife’s family was renting in Michigan City. In summer cottages, we’re thrown back on an earlier world of entertainment, rooting through the same faded paperbacks and board games that generations did before us.)
And I’m glad it took me seventeen years to watch Trekkies. When it was first released, there were heated arguments about its true attitude toward its subjects: whether it was affectionate or condescending, a love letter or a freak show. Seen from the distance of close to two decades, though, it comes across as a surprisingly gentle portrait, especially now that the airwaves are filled with documentaries looking for other subcultures to mock, and it gains an added resonance that wasn’t there at the time. On its initial run, it would have felt like a report from the front lines of nerd culture; now, it’s a time capsule, capturing a moment in fandom that would never come again. It takes place during the most epochal event in the history of fan culture, the advent of the Internet, which allowed obsessive, often introverted personalities from all parts of the world to seek one another out in safe spaces online. We never hear the roar of a dialup modem in Trekkies, but as the camera pans across a fan’s lovingly curated Brent Spiner site on Geocities, it’s hard not to imagine it in the background. And this is still a transitional moment, with Kirk/Spock fanfic and bondage fantasies featuring Captain Janeway distributed in photocopied newsletters.
Today, we don’t need to go in active search of fandoms; the fandoms all but come to us. Internet culture and the Trekkie world overlapped so beautifully in those early years because they attracted people of the same stripe: to get online at all in the mid- to late nineties, you had to be pulled in by the prospect of what you’d find there, and willing to tolerate long nights in a dark room waiting for downloads at 14.4 kbps. Trekkies formed a natural community of early adopters, both because of their interest in technology—you can see rough versions of iPads in The Next Generation and the equivalent of a verbal Google search in the episode “Darmok”—and their capacity for solitary, meticulous work. It’s no surprise that when they logged on, they found people a lot like them. Now, with our options for going online all but beating through our screens, online comment sections have come to look more or less like the rest of the world. You don’t need to meet any particular threshold of patience or motivation to share an opinion: in some ways, it’s harder not to share. And while, on balance, it’s a positive development, it also leads to a form of engagement with pop culture that has little in common with the world that Trekkies depicts.
Call it whatever you like, but it boils down to the difference between hanging out with a few committed friends at the Magic: The Gathering table at lunch period and being thrown headlong into the full cafeteria. Drop into a discussion of Star Trek these days, and you’re less likely to encounter an analysis of the Klingon language than dismissive comments about the J.J. Abrams franchise and invectives against Kurtzman and Orci. (It’s an especially stark contrast with the treatment of creative figureheads in Trekkies, in which showrunners like Brannon Braga are treated like gods.) If online fandom seems generally less impassioned and more ambivalent these days, it’s only because it reflects the world as a whole, rather than the views of a handful of devotees who wouldn’t be online at all if they didn’t have strong feelings to share. In the world of Trekkies, there was room for everything but “meh.” Negativity has always been part of the fan experience; what it’s striking about it now is how so much of it seems to come from indifference. There’s a sequel to Trekkies, more than a decade old, that I haven’t seen, but I already feel that it’s time for a third installment, even if it’s less about uncovering an unseen stratum of pop culture than analyzing what is taking place all around us.
All lyrical work must, as a whole, be perfectly intelligible, but in some particulars a little unintelligible.
When I draw the pages, I jump around from panel to panel, not finishing them in sequence. The writer Robert Fiore once asked me if the reason I jumped around was kind of like the process of writing a song, where maybe you’re missing one beat; I thought that was a good way of putting it. When I know there’s something I want to add to a sequence but I’m not sure what it is, I try to leave enough room—I’ll know by the time I get to the end of the story. Occasionally I mess up and I’ll be one panel short. I have no room and I’m driving myself crazy trying to figure out what to take out or how I can combine three panels into one. Sometimes it works, and sometimes I just have to let it go.
A committed Balanchine dancer (with a small “d”) comes to realize that Personality (with an enormous “P”) is a bundle of haphazard characteristics frozen in a pleasing mask for immediate identification and negotiable prestige. No matter what is danced—and it makes little difference—stardom dims the dancing. What is danced is perforce secondary. There are two types of ballet companies: those interested in selling stars and those occupied in demonstrating and extending the dance, as such…
Physicality in the tense relationships of Balanchine’s dancers kept under so strict a discipline in so free an exercise pushes the spectacle to a high pressure point. Everything is so focused, compressed, packed, playful that it is as if the entire design were patterned on coiled steel or explosive fuels. Combinations of music in motion approach a fourth dimension that cannot be verbally defined.
—Lincoln Kirstein, “Balanchine’s Fourth Dimension,” in Vogue
When I come out of an interview, I jot down the things I remember as being my favorite moments. For an hour-long interview usually it’s just four or five moments, but if out I’m reporting all day, I’ll spend over an hour at night typing out every favorite thing that happened. This is handier than you might think. Often this short list of favorite things will provide the backbone to the structure to my story…
Then I print out the log and mark it up. Every possible quote I might use, I write a letter next to, A, B, C, etc. As I do this, on a single piece of paper, I make a list for myself of the quotes. So when I’m done, there’s not just the tape log, there’s a piece of paper with tiny handwriting on it, listing the quotes “A—he describes the old house, B—what it was like the moment he came home, C—his sister warned him,” etc. Any quote that’s especially promising gets an asterisk. Any quote I’m sure I cannot tell the story without gets two asterisks.
The point of this is that it gets all this inchoate material—the sound you’ve gathered—into a form where you can see it all on one page. You see all your options. It’s in a form where your brain can start to organize it. Also, writing the list sort of inserts all the quotes into quick-access RAM memory in your head in a helpful way. I find that the important first step to writing anything or editing anything (half of my day each day is editing) is just getting the possible building blocks of the story into your head so you can start thinking about how to manipulate it and cut it and move it.
As I’ve written here elsewhere, research in fiction is less about factual accuracy than a way of dreaming. Fiction, like a dream, isn’t assembled out of nothing: it’s an assimilation and combination of elements that we’ve gathered in our everyday lives, in stories we hear from friends, in our reading and consumption of other works of art, and through the conscious investigation of whatever world we’ve decided to explore. This last component is perhaps the most crucial, and probably the least appreciated. Writers vary in the degree of novelistic attention they can bring to their surroundings at any one time, but most of us learn to dial it down: it’s both exhausting and a little unfair to life itself to constantly be mining for material. When we commence work on a project, though, our level of engagement rises correspondingly, to the point where we start seeing clues or messages everywhere we look. Research is really just a way of taking that urge for gleaning or bricolage and making it slightly more systematic, exposing ourselves to as many potential units of narrative as we can at a time when we’re especially tuned to such possibilities.
The primordial function of research—-of “furnishing and feathering a world,” in Anthony Lane’s memorable phrase—is especially striking when it comes to details that would never be noticed by the average reader. Few of us would care whether or not the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street could really be climbed by an ordinary man, but for James Joyce, it was important enough for him to write his aunt to confirm it. If we’re thinking only in terms of the effect on readers, this kind of meticulous accuracy can start to seem a little insane, but from the author’s point of view, it makes perfect sense. For most of the time we spend living with a novel, the only reader whose opinion matters is our own, and a lot of research consists of the author convincing himself that the story he’s describing could really have taken place. In order to lose ourselves in the fictional dream, the smallest elements have to seem persuasive to us, and even if a reader couldn’t be expected to know that we’ve fudged or invented a detail that we couldn’t verify elsewhere, we know it, and it subtly affects how deeply we can commit ourselves to the story we’re telling. A reader may never notice a minor dishonesty, but the writer will always remember it.
In my own fiction, I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can even in the smallest things. I keep a calendar of the major events in the story, and I do my best to square it with such matters as railway schedules, museum hours, and the times for sunrise and sunset. (As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “And how troublesome the moon is!”) I walk the locations of each scene whenever possible, counting off the steps and figuring out how long it would take a character to get from one point to another, and when I can’t go there in person, I spend a long time on Google Street View. It may seem like a lot of trouble, but it actually saves me work in the long run: being able to select useful details from a mass of existing material supplements the creative work that has to be done, and I’m always happier to take something intact from the real world than to have to invent it from scratch. And I take a kind of perverse pleasure in the knowledge that a reader wouldn’t consciously notice any of it. At best, these details serve as a kind of substratum for the visible events of the story, and tiny things add up to a narrative that is convincing in its broadest strokes. There’s no guarantee that such an approach will work, of course, but it’s hard to make anything work without it.
In City of Exiles, for instance, I briefly mention something called Operation Pepel, which is described as a special operation by Russian intelligence that occurred in Turkey in the sixties. Operation Pepel did, in fact, exist, even if we don’t know much about who was involved or what it was: I encountered it thanks to a passing reference, amounting to less than a sentence, in the monumental The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin. (It caught my eye, incidentally, only because I’d already established that part of the story would center on an historical event involving Turkey, which is just another illustration of how parts of the research process can end up informing one another across far-flung spaces.) Later, I tie Operation Pepel—purely speculatively—to elements of the Soviet poison program, and the details I provide on such historical events as Project Bonfire are as accurate as I can make them. None of this will mean anything even to most specialists in the history of Russia, and I could easily have made up something that would have served just as well. But since I invent so much elsewhere, and so irresponsibly, it felt better to retain as many of the known facts I could. It may not matter to the reader, but it mattered a lot to me…
The wheelwright, the carpenter, the butcher, the bowman, the swimmer, achieve their skill not by accumulating facts concerning their art, nor by the energetic use either of muscles or outward senses, but through utilizing the fundamental kinship which, underneath apparent distinctions and diversities, unites their own primal stuff to the primal stuff of the medium in which they work.