"The Learning Curve": Hypertext, Fan Fiction, and the Calculus of Human Nature

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Academic Commentary
Commentator: Mary Ellen Curtin
Date(s): October 9, 1999
Medium: online
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS
External Links: The Learning Curve: Hypertext, Fan Fiction, and the Calculus of Human Nature, Archived version
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"The Learning Curve": Hypertext, Fan Fiction, and the Calculus of Human Nature is an essay by Mary Ellen Curtin.

This essay is a slightly longer version of the paper Mary Ellen Curtin presented at the M.I.T. conference "Media in Transition," October 9, 1999.

The work discusses several fanfics, but focuses on The Learning Curve by raku.


My first encounter with fan fiction came after I read Constance Penley's book NASA/Trek -- I was considering it for review for Amazon.com, as it got very good reviews in the British scientific press. In the event, I did not review Penley's book, but I was interested enough in the topic to do some web searches for more information. What I found was totally unexpected.

No-one had hinted to me that fan fiction might be good in a literary sense. I was expecting to find it interesting or subversive, but not of very high quality -- no better than the average of the professional Star Trek novels, and probably much worse.

Instead I found myself reading some of the best fiction produced in the 1990s in any genre. I was astounded. The best fan fiction -- works like Killashandra's "Bitter Glass" and Macedon & Peg's "Talking Stick and Circle" -- are true works of art, a distinct genre of literature with its own particular strengths.

I started following the alt.startrek.creative.erotica.moderated (ASCEM) newsgroup in February 1998. I was soon struck by the amazingly high number of well-written stories on the group, and by the science-like quality of the discussion and of the fanfiction itself.

What do I mean by "science-like"? Fans call what we see on the screen "canon", but we do not treat it as a sacred text: it does not have the canonical connotations of "literary canon" or "canon of Scripture." Screen canon is not "that which is known to be good and true." All fans admit that some screen canon is bad: badly written, badly directed, badly acted. We used canon non-canonically, more in the way scientists say "data".
The cold, objective fact is that Captain Kirk is *really* William Shatner pretending to be a hero. We look at canon -- screen manifestations, words and gestures and expression -- and try to make up a theory -- like a scientist's theory about the physical world -- that explains the character or the society behind it. (Or that's funny or sexy or pulls in as many Monty Python references as possible -- but that's another lecture: "Treksmut: Comedy, Tragedy or Satyr Play?")

It is the effort to create characters that match a set of objective data -- screen canon -- that makes me call fanfic "The Calculus of Human Nature." Fanfic can be a tool for studying character. It may in fact be the most powerful literary tool for this purpose -- more powerful than conventional literary fiction.

Compared to mainstream literature, fanfiction is like laboratory science. A scientific laboratory is a good place to find out about nature because it is a narrow, controlled, artificial environment. The scientist in the lab holds as many factors as possible constant, so ze can see the consequences of changing a single factor.
In this paper I have only begun to explore a few facets of a few links in TLC; much, much more could be done. TLC is as complex, involving, serious, and worthy of study as any literary work of the 1990s. By the intention of the author, there is no "right" way to read TLC. Some readers have read it through only once, some have followed every choice-universe they could, others have read almost randomly or followed only a few choice-universes. I think TLC would be an interesting and provocative syllabus choice for courses on reading and reader-response. Reading it, thinking about it, and comparing their responses to those of other readers would let students explore one of the fundamental uses of literature: to develop a better understanding of one's self and others, to seek truth from fiction.