I, Fanboy


'People in England make jokes about the Irish. People in Ireland make jokes about the inhabitants of Kerry. People in Kerry make jokes about a particular street. People on that street make jokes about the people at number 17. The people at number 17 make jokes about Uncle Pat. He's the person who's really doing all the ridiculous things which happen in 'Irish' jokes.'          
                                    Paul Merton, or words to that effect


I have achieved a remarkable feat.

I have been accused of being a dreadful fanboy on a forum dedicated to the discussion of role-playing games.

This as damning an indictment as it is possible to imagine. I feel much as William Hope Hodgeson [1] must have done when he was criticized for his turgid prose style[2] by H.P Lovecraft [3].

People in the outside world lump all consumers of science fiction and fantasy together in one homogenous, nutty lump. They imagine that we spend all our time wearing strange costumes and conversing in Klingon[4], whereas in fact we do so only at weekends. Science fiction fans, on the other hand, regard themselves as perfectly normal and well-balanced; but look down on nutty people who like Star Trek[5] or play Dungeons & Dragons[6]. And it appears that Dungeons & Dragons players regard themselves as normal and sane, but look down on a sub-group called 'fan-boys'.

Ursula le Guin[7] says that the horror mainstream writers and critics have for 'fantasy' writing amounts to a kind of repression; a fear of making contact with the unconscious. C.S Lewis[8] similarly points out that the hatred which some people have of non-realistic fiction amounts to a phobia; paralleled by the near-obsession which it engenders in others. In fact, I think that the prejudice against fantasy is based, not on a dislike of the genre itself, but on a contempt for or snobbery towards the kinds of people who are perceived to read it. I read in the Guardian[9] the other week that 'manga[10]' videos were liked by 'the kinds of people who used to spend their adolescent years playing Dungeons & Dragons. A few weeks previously, it had suggested that forthcoming sequels to The Matrix[11] would give a certain group of people 'something to do instead of talking to girls'. The implication that SF readers are virgins (and that this is contemptible) seems to carry with it a baggage of adolescent sexual bullying. The stereotype of the homosexualist Doctor Who[12] fan is sufficiently well-established that it is a commonplace in the gay community, if Queer as Folk[13] is anything to go by, at any rate. This arouses the suspicion that 'sexless fanboy' is in fact a socially acceptable euphemism for 'poof'; society won't let you abuse homosexualists, so you abuse Doctor Who fans, instead. The odious Peter Bradshaw, as has been noted, criticized Jackson's Lord of the Rings not for any specific flaws, but for being 'nerdish'. 'Nerd' is historically a bully-term for a conformist, academic child[14]; the use of 'boy' in 'fanboy' also seems related to the accusation of sexlessness [15].

It is unlikely that the contributors to a role-playing forum perceive all science fiction fans as eunuchs. When they say that someone is a 'fanboy', they are presumably referring to a sub-set of characteristics which they see in some fantasy consumers, but not in themselves.

Ex-games-publisher James Wallis[16] has cited the fact that he is 'fucking sick of fucking fanboys with no fucking sense of fucking proportion' as one of his reasons for leaving the games industry.

Trust me, I have seen the worst that the world outside the games hobby can produce, and I can tell you the only psychotic fuckwits more psychotic and more fuckwitted than gamers are Marvel[17] and DC[18] fans, hardcore mediafans (with special reference to devotees of Dr Who and original Star Trek), and furries[19].

This strikes me as overstating the case, somewhat.

What characterizes a fanboy, as opposed to a mere consumer? Paramount sinks a lot of money into producing new episodes of Star Trek, so one assumes that it must have a mainstream audience far beyond the realms of obsessive hobbyists. Either that, or there must be an awful lot of fanboys in the world. Is there a difference between 'Thinking that Star Trek is an enjoyable television programme' and 'Being a Star Trek fanboy?' Can we come up with a definition of Doctor Who fanboy other than 'One who has watched 'Creature from the Pit' [20]more than once, and watched 'The Gunfighters' at all'? [21]

'Is a fanboy simply someone who knows a lot about the subject? A lot of people might classify me as a Tolkien[22] fanboy because I feel confident enough to explain why it was that Felagund[23] left Nargothrand[24] to help Beren[25] without looking it up in the book. (Beren's father, Barahir, had saved Felegund at the battle of Unnumbered Tears, and Felegund had promised to aid any of Barahir's descendents at any time, and given him a ring as a mark of his promise[26]. This ring survived into the Third Age[27], and was in the possession of Aragorn.[28])

Well, maybe. But if its useless knowledge we're talking about, I can also tell you the grounds for Hotspur's rebellion in Henry IV part 1[29]. (When Richard II left for Ireland, he named Mortimer his heir, but…oh, never mind.) Why do we call someone who knows a great deal about Shakespeare 'an expert' but someone who knows a great deal about Star Trek 'a fanboy'?

Perhaps a Star Trek expert is a fanboy because Star Trek is not worth the time and effort required to become an expert in it, whereas Shakespeare is. This would be a value-judgment about literature: I do happen to think that Henry IV is more valuable then Star Trek, (except possibly 'Sins of the Fathers'[30].) But I wouldn't like to have to go about proving it in court, or even in an essay. But it would surely be very surprising if this argument— 'a fanboy is someone who takes seriously something not really worth taking seriously' was being put forward by people who are themselves fantasy or sci-fi consumers It would imply a level of contempt for the material almost amount to self-loathing. It would be like saying 'I know that I spend all my spare time watching Star Trek , but I don't think that its worth the time and effort I spend on it.'

Such a position could be a mask, I suppose, for common or garden anti-intellectualism: fan-boy might be a term of abuse meaning 'he knows more about it than I do' If you hang around on the Tolkien websites, which I wouldn't recommend, it's surprising how often you'll hear expressions like 'literati' and 'academic' and 'expert' used pejoratively. (There's a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' element to this: if the literati  suggest that Tolkien's books contain too much weather and scenery, then that's sour grapes because he's more popular than they are; if they start to bring Tolkien into the field of literary studies, then they are spoiling what is, after all, 'just a story.' Use the word 'allegory' and see how long it is until you get cast into the crack of doom.) Even Gene Woolf[31] who one might have thought would have known better, is inclined to rubbish academic literary criticism as a self-serving institution that doesn't have much to do with the understanding of actual books.

Fantasy is an intrinsically romantic medium, and TV 'fandom' is routed in nostalgia; so perhaps it is understandable that people think that that talking about—even thinking about—your beloved is going to deflower it. Someone suggested that my review of Jackson's[32] Two Towers would 'drain the joy out of it.' I don't think that it had much joy in it to begin with, but that's beside the point.

I think that fanboys are differentiated from scholars and mere enthusiasts by the way in which they approach their chosen subject. Fanboys have a large amount of factual information at their fingertips; but their attitude to that information is acquisitive and un-critical. Someone studying for a post-graduate degree in cultural studies with reference to comic books (and there must be a few) could tell you how the changing attitudes to superheroes[33] between, say, the 1950s version of Batman[34] and Dark Knight Returns[35]' reflects changing attitudes to law enforcement during that period; or even how Wil Eisner's[36] art influenced Frank Miller's[37]. He would probably get stuck if you asked him 'In which issue of X-Men[38] did Marvel Girl[39] first wear the green costume?' The fan-boy would know the latter but not have anything to say (or understand, or care about) the former.

This is a qualitative difference, and gives us a good reason to despise fanboys. They learn facts about their material, but they do not think about it or seek to understand it. They know, as the fellow said[40], the credits of everything but the value of nothing.[41] (Which of course, means that I'm a scholar but not a fanboy; whereas as the Comic Book Guy[42] in The Simpsons[43] is just a fanboy. So there!)

Except…is the latter kind of fact-based knowledge really so despicable? Gentleman amateurs often make worthwhile contributions to their fields. The amateur astronomer who stares at the same patch of sky through his optical telescope night after night is surely a fan-boy, as compared with the academic astronomer who never looks at an actual star. But the amateurs discover comets that the professionals miss. It has been argued that Darwin's discoveries were as much attributable to his fanboy-ish obsession with collecting and cataloguing samples, and talking to other geeks who did the same, as to any innate or inspirational genius.

This is not to say that the fanboy state of mind is always constructive. There are Jesus[44] fanboys who memorize short quotes from the Bible[45], including chapter and verse references, without seeming to have any understanding of what's actually in the book. They often knock at my door early on Sunday mornings. And indeed, since the abolition of education in 1997, most school children spend most of their time being grilled about sound-bite facts that can be memorized, tested, and examined and placed on league tables. This, along with the growing importance of computers and computer programmers, guarantees that, pretty soon, everyone in the whole world will be a fanboy.

But when it is applied to a small sub-section of literature, it is a relatively minor vice. So what if I can remember that the bridge which connected Middle-earth with the Undying Lands is made of 'ilmen'? [46] It's not like I'm standing in the cold writing down the numbers on the front of railway locomotives, is it?

Mundanes despise fans; and fans despise fanboys; and fanboys despise people who watch Babylon 5 .[47]  But there is nothing in the whole world lower than a trainspotter


[1] A writer of horror stories, best known for Carnaki, Ghost Hunter

[2] In fact, Hodgson had been dead for 9 years when H.P Lovecraft wrote his  'Supernatural Horror in Literature '

[3] A writer of horror stories, bests known for 'The Call of Cthulhu' and other stories about alien gods with an unfeasibly low consonant to vowel ratio. His prose is widely thought of as quite turgid.

[4] A fictitious language invented for the TV show Star Trek (qv). Based on a small vocabulary which can be endlessly re-combined, it is relatively easy to learn, and is said to have more speakers than Esperanto.

[5] A 1960s TV show about the evils of communism and Christianity, later revived a Star Trek: The Next  Generation a soap opera about the importance of counseling and father-son bonding.

[6] A war game created by Dave Arnson in the 1970s, which evolved by word-of-mouth into a kind of improvised storytelling system,.

[7] A fantasy writer, best known for that book about the planet where everyone is a hermaphrodite, which I'm going to get around to reading one of these days.

[8] An Oxford academic, best known for Studies in Words and The Allegory of Love

[9] A UK left-wing newspaper, formerly 'The Manchester Guardian'. 'Guardian-reader' is universally a descriptive (and sometimes abusive) term for 'left-wing intellectual.'

[10] The normal Japanese word for 'comic book', literally 'frivolous publication': for reasons of cultural patronization, it is now synonymous with 'anime', ('cartoon') and generally reserved for culturally specific cartoons—those about giant robots, samurai, martial artists etc. ('Robot'—Literally 'slave', and first used in a sci-fi novel about a caste of human slaves; now generally used to mean 'artificial person made of metal. 'Samurai'—A medieval Japanese knight.)

[11] A movie about Cartesian dualism

[12] A long running television programme about a time traveller

[13] A television programme about homosexuals. It was written by a well-known Doctor Who enthusiast, but I don't see why I should let facts get in the way of clever debating points.

[14] i.e the kind which the education system struggles very hard to produce

[15] As well as the fact that sci-fi fandom is exclusively male, of course.

[16] Ex-owner of Hogshead games, designer of many games including The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, co-designer with my good-self of Once Upon a Time.

[17] A publisher of comic books, best known for Spiderman, X-Men, and the Incredible Hulk. Their characters all nominally inhabit a shared world, called 'The Marvel Universe.'

[18] A publisher of comic books, best known for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Their characters all nominally inhabited a shared world known as the DC universe. ('DC' originally referred to one of their most popular titles, Detective Comics, but it's now just a trade mark.)

[19] I believe that this refers to a genre of animation involving relatively serious adventure stories featuring anthropomorphic animals.

[20] A Doctor Who story, from the period when Tom Baker played the lead role. It is not regarded as a classic.

[21] A Doctor Who story, filmed in black-and -white from the period when William Hartnell was playing the lead role. It is widely, though incorrectly in my view, regarded as the single worst story ever produced for the series.

[22] An Oxford academic who created an imaginary language and fantasy land for it in his spare time. Regarded as being the best writer of the second millennium, although not by anyone sensible.

[23] A character in The Silmarillion', Tolkien's mythological precursor to Lord of the Rings.

[24] Dittto

[25] Ditto

[26] All characters and places in The Silmarillion'

[27] The mythological period when Lord  of the Rings  is set.

[28] A character in Lord of the Rings

[29] A play by William Shakespeare, a well known English playwright. Actually the greatest writer of the second millennium, whatever Anne Robinson's ludicrous new phone in poll series may be about to decide.

[30] An episode of Star Trek; The Next Generation concerned with honour, politics, and father/son bonding.

[31] Science fiction writer, best known for the Shadow of the Torturer series, some of which I almost understood.

[32] Peter Jackson, director of The Two Towers, a movie thought by some to be related to the Tolkien novel of the same name.

[33] A genre of comic-book character starting with Superman in the 1940s, characterized by their colorful costumes.

[34] A crime fighting superhero (qv) who dresses up as a giant bat, for good and adequate reasons.

[35] A comic book by Frank Miller, imagining Batman (qv) 's final adventure, and depicting him in a dark and realistic style (as dark and realistic as a story about a man dressed up as a giant bat can be.)

[36] Comic book writer artist, best known for creating The Spirit and credited by some with coining the term 'graphic novel'

[37] Comic book writer and artists, best known for Dark Knight Returns and his work on Daredevil. Probably the most influential comic book artist working today.

[38] A popular comic book about a group of soliloquies who talk in superheroes. It was popularized by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, but based on characters created by Len Wien and Dave Cockrum, based in turn by characters created (as with nearly everything else in comic books) by Jack Kirby.

[39] A character in the X-Men.

[40] A phrase often used to introduce (mis)quotations by Bertie Wooster in the stories of P.G Wodehouse.

[41]'A film buff—One who knows the credits of everything but the value of nothing';  based on Oscar Wiilde's 'A cynic—One who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.'

[42] A character in the Simpsons (q.v) who runs a shop which sells comic books.

[43] A cartoon about an American family. It is so obscure and difficult to understood that it does not merit a prime time slot in the UK.

[44] Central figure of Christianity

[45] Holy book of Christianity

[46] Reference to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Silmarilion. And in fact, I can't; I had to look up the word Ilmen. But I knew where to look it up. Wasn't is Mark Twain who said 'there are two kinds of knowledge,  you know something yourself, or you know where you can look it up.'

[47] Si-fi soap opera like Star Trek: Next Generation only not as good, which is frankly, pretty low. Concerned with father-son bonding and very bad dialogue.