In 1996, I wrote fanfiction.
As an author today, when I tell teenagers about my youthful predilection for stories set in other peoples’ world, they barely blink. Fanfic, if a little nerdy, is expected of people like me, people who wear big glasses and ironic t-shirts, people who make books. Teenagers might tell me that they write fanfiction, too — sheepishly rolling their eyes at their OTPs or giggling about how their favorite fandom is one centered around books they don’t even like anymore, though they did once, when they were ten, a lifetime ago.
On one level, that they have heard of fanfic at all never fails to surprise me. Because in 1996, when I was twelve, nobody wrote fanfiction. No one even knew what fanfic was. This was ancient history, when a middle schooler might get teased for reading three-inch thick fantasy novels, for reading. When we wrote fanfiction, we hid it from our friends, or had just one friend we shared it with. If we weren’t online, we didn’t even call it fanfiction. Maybe we were embarrassed about writing stories set in other worlds; maybe we hid those stories in special notebooks (leather dragon journals bought with our allowance at Borders, probably). If we were online, we found chatrooms full of weirdos on AOL. Enclaves of other dorks, who also hid their secret shame from friends at school. You have to understand that this was 1996. The term shipping had only recently been coined.
You have to understand that this was before Harry. You have to understand that this was before Jo.
I have a tattoo on my calf. A dragon. A very specific dragon, from a very specific place. Pern.
I was twelve the first time I truly fell in love with a world. A cousin had loaned me a heavy grocery bag of science fiction novels. There was Mercedes Lackey. There was Frederik Pohl. And there was lots and lots of Anne McCaffrey.
For some reason, I didn’t start with the first book in the Dragonriders of Pern series, the one with the golden dragon on the cover and a toxic green sky simmering behind it. Always contrary, I found a chart on one of the flyleafs that said the author recommended reading her books in publication, not chronological order. And so I decided to completely ignore her. I started with Dragonsdawn, which told the story of a colony ship landing on a new planet, and the diminutive dragons they found there. It was about two kids, Sean and Sorka, growing up in a time of crisis. About genetic engineering. About making dragons. I read that book in one sitting, the light in my living room growing golden, and then more dim. One day, decades later, I wrote my own book about the colonization of an alien planet. I see now that I was the one being colonized. Anne’s world, sprawling out inside my head.
I’d read the other books later. But with the exception of The White Dragon, I preferred the books that were set early in Pern’s chronology. I liked it when the dragons were small and scrappy and almost human. I liked imagining how it would feel when a dragon looked at you and told you they’d been waiting their whole lives — all of five minutes since hatching in the hot sands of the weyr — to meet you. I liked how the dragons were different colors, and had different personalities, too. There were the flighty greens. The sturdy browns. The bronzes and golds, who were supposed to be the smartest and the best, but I never quite bought it. I wanted a blue dragon. It didn’t matter that Anne didn’t really tell you much about what a blue dragon was. You’ll understand, today, if I tell you that blues were the Hufflepuffs of Pern. But I knew that I wanted one. I knew that I was a bluerider. I knew it in the same way I knew that the other kids at school would never understand me. I knew it in the same way I knew I wasn’t really a girl. Some things, even fictional things, are known without inquiry or examination. Was it a metaphor for something? Probably. Was it Anne McCaffrey’s metaphor, or mine?
I have no idea.
We got AOL that summer, not long after I read Dragonsdawn. Our plan only allowed our family to have fifteen hours of internet access a week. At first, we dutifully recorded our hours on a sheet we’d taped to our laminate computer desk. The first few months, all was well. I found a few message boards about the Nickelodeon show Space Cases and, with friends, did our best to avoid pedophiles in the chatrooms, while simultaneously asking them questions like “wut’s a/s/l mean?”
And then one day I typed “Pern” into the search bar.
I found usenet, and it was like a door opening up. I found a message board of folks who discussed every aspect of Pern — all the continuity errors, how the books had been on a steady decline in terms of quality, everything. And I found out that there were clubs where people wrote about having their own dragons. There were a lot of rules back then, and I quickly internalized them. I knew that once, one of these fanfic clubs had let someone have a silver dragon, but Anne McCaffrey had since forbidden these off-color creatures. I knew that she didn’t like us playing with her characters, or in her favorite settings, but would let us create our own. That was fine with me. As much as I liked the Sean and Sorka show in Dragonsdawn, I didn’t care about any of Anne’s other characters. I wanted my own characters. I wanted a blue dragon.
Anne pretty much never wrote about blue dragonriders, but that was fine. I had my own stories about them. In my head.
That month was the first month I went over my allotted hours. Our bill was $155 and my family was furious. Luckily, soon enough, AOL would start offering unlimited internet. I needed it. I was about to start spending a lot of time online.
My first character was a boy named J’dius. I was disappointed when his randomly generated dragon was a boring old bronze, though I supposed i should have been happy. My second character was a girl. Dakuna. Her hair was short and spiky, just like mine. She impressed a blue dragon, and I was over the moon. Someone told me that blueriders had to be bisexual — because, according to the rules Anne McCaffrey had laid out for us, blue dragons (male) mated with green dragons (female) and when dragons mate, their riders mate, and greens were ridden by both men and women and in fandom, so were blues. Therefore, bisexual. This made sense to me at the time, though it feels absurd to type it now. Dakuna — who went by Daks, which was, I’m sure, not ripped off from Deep Space 9 at all — was openly bisexual decades before I ever was.
It feels ridiculous, in a way, but these were the conversations we had in fandom, drawing charts in our head about dragon sexuality and where that left us, as fanfic writers. It felt ridiculous, but as a lonely queer kid, it was also the only place we had conversations like these. I’d been reading Mulder/Skinner fic since the moment I’d gotten online. I’d had queer friends at camp, but had been too shy to voice my own queerness with them. Online, it was different. This was something talked about openly.
That wasn’t always a good thing. It made some of us vulnerable. There was an older guy, a predator, in my favorite online club. He quietly took advantage of me. But it would be decades before I could recognize his actions for what they were. Instead, at the time, I was glad (desperate, really) to talk to someone about gayness. And there were real, genuine connections made there, too. I remember someone explaining her screenname to me: SapphicDragon. Do you know what that means? she asked me. I asked if it had something to do with sapphires.
No, no, she said. It’s Sapphic like Sappho. You know, a lesbian. I’m gay.
Ohhhhhhhhhh, I said, and probably put a smiley face after it, because that’s what you did, back then: :-)
At some point, Anne got wind of what was happening in fandom. How all sorts of people were riding all sorts of dragons. Maybe we should have seen it coming. Her books were fair for their time. There were gay men. But they were always slutty and catty and sometimes murderous and they always rode slutty, catty, sometimes murderous green dragons. They were never main characters, who were cishet folks who rode gold and bronze dragons. There was one character of significance in one book who was said to ride a green; in later books, this dragon was quietly revised to be brown. A continuity error, the folks on usenet said, before Anne had worked out all the mechanics of her world.
But I think she knew what she was doing.
Anne released a statement. A very serious statement we were supposed to take very seriously. A statement that sounds fake, when I think about it today, if I don’t think about the high profile TERFs in the news saying things much worse. It was called the Tent Peg statement, and the fandom clubs, which were playing with her permission, needed, suddenly, to abide by it. Not only that, but we needed to post it at the beginning of every chat and roleplay session. We needed to understand how serious this was.
Imagine being a queer kid — fourteen, by then, immersed in this world for two years — playing a queer character. A bluerider, who is just like you. And learning that her existence was now only allowable because she’d been grandfathered in. Imagine being forced to contemplate anal rape via tent peg once a week before your Saturday night chatroom roleplay session. Imagine being told that this makes a man effeminate and gay. Because of the hormones. In his butt. What do you even do with that?
You argue about it online, that’s what. You tell everyone who will listen that it’s bullshit homophobic pseudoscience. Your friends mostly agree with you, except the few that keep reminding you we need to be careful. We could get sued. This isn’t our world.
Isn’t it our world? you secretly wonder. It lives in our heads now. She can’t take it from us. You’re like a grubby toddler who has commandeered all the daycare toys. No. Mine.
But this matters to you, for some reason. It’s not grubby or petty. This world could have been better, you think, if only it had been truly ours.
At some point, I drifted away. I got tired of the changes to the rules, found kids in meatspace who liked fantasy, too. I was spending my weekends making papier mache buster swords with other nerds, and missed one chat, and then another. And found myself not really missing it. Within two years, I’d given myself a mohawk and started going to punk shows — another dork enclave. And while there was homophobia there, and prejudice, it didn’t come from above. It wasn’t sanctioned. No one was going to sue you for not being homophobic.
By the time Harry Potter blew up big, I’d stopped reading fantasy novels entirely. I felt a little over it, and a little threatened by how popular and mainstream some other fantasy novel suddenly was. But many of my fandom friends stayed on, became Ravenclaw or Gryffindor. I read the first two books eventually, conceded that they were fine. But what I came to really appreciate was Wizard Rock. Art built on top of someone else’s art. The world, I had to admit, had that thing that Pern had once had. I learned to use it as party chatter. No one would ever understood what I meant when I said I was a bluerider, except a certain kind of dork — but they knew what I meant when I said I was sorted Gryffindor but chose Slytherin.
Still, I know what it’s like to love something like that, to love it when you’re young and fierce and hungry. To read a book and watch the light in your living room fade and turn on all the lamps, all yellow, and read through dinnertime, too. To find out that there are other people who have felt that magic. To build something more on top of it.
And I understand what it’s like to feel betrayed by that world’s creator.
I should have known that Anne was awful, in a way. You can see it in the books. The fixation on rape. The stereotypes. The bizarre power dynamics. The bizarre power dynamics with her fans. It wasn’t not there in the books. But I was young and needed a place and was willing to make her world mine. There is pure queer magic in a blue dragon. I know, because I have one tattooed to my right calf.
Because I was a snarky, pretentious teenage know-it-all — a fantasy hipster, who had done the fanfic thing years before — I saw the cracks in Harry Potter pretty early. What made this mediocre boy so special? Why was his family both simperingly evil, and fat? Why was it all so colonialist? If Dumbledore was gay, why didn’t JK Rowling say so in her books?
All of that is beside the point for the readers for whom it meant something, even if they argued about these things at length, too, online. Because maybe they had a character or a story that made them feel seen. Maybe they were able to buy a scarf striped in their favorite colors and play quidditch in their backyard with friends and they were able to feel a part of something for the first time ever. Despite being weird. An outsider. Gay or trans. Or gay and trans. Maybe they always had it in their head that the door to the “wrong” dorm at Hogwarts would open up for them one day. That someone who had been called a boy would be discovered to be a witch. Maybe they were reading supportively, expansively.
Maybe I knew I was a bluerider, even before I knew what that meant.
And maybe that’s where the magic has been, this entire time.