"August is coming", the messages said. In the always polite and ordered fanfic mailing list (we save all the lunacy for the fics), such a precise, unassuming, understated prediction could only mean one thing: Something bad lurked ahead. Something real bad.
Stuck in a MomentSome thoughts about "AUGUST"
STUCK IN A MOMENT: Some thoughts about "August"
(Dedicated to the "August" crew.)
It was. For a few days, the mailing list was taken into a wild ride of blood and pain... a few pages, sometimes a few lines, at a time. With the writing and the timing of the messages skillfully overlapping fic-time and real- time, the result was an uniquely gripping and intense piece, quite unlike any other fic I´ve ever seen.
The reason, I think, is that it wasn´t a fic; it was an event, something rooted in a specific moment of time. You can still read all the text fragments, and the ominous premonitory messages that heralded them on the list, but it´s like reading about Woodstock. It´s interesting, enjoyable, but it´s not the same. You had to be there, at an unholy hour in the morning, waiting for the outcome of a rooftop fight...
But once you´ve been through "August", in one way or another, there are still things to be said about it. It was a new sort of thing, and new things always carry with them new ways of thinking about things (I feel McLuhan would have been proud).
I´ll start in a most unscientific way, with a very subjective question: Amazingly well-written as it was (after all, it was the brainchild of some of the ---deservedly--- best-reputed people in the bat-clan´s fanfic genre), there were some moments where the situation got to me much more deeply than any other fic I´ve ever read. I was scared, and apprehensive, and way more tense than with any other fan fiction. And, judging from the feedback that went on both during and after August, I´d said that a lot of other people felt like me. I´m quite sure I wasn´t the only one who swore when that damn heart monitor went flat...
How did they do that? The answer, I think, is context; a through, well- crafted,professional use and abuse of context.
Now, in a sense fan fiction itself is a genre rooted in context. After all, we are writing and reading about characters that have been already written and read about. A lot. That means that a few words of dialogue, or a single scene, can convey a whole bag of nuanced meanings, thanks to the wealth of shared knowledge between writers and readers; think about the different feeling of a fanfic piece in a genre you know nothing about (I think that the way this shared knowledge differs in depth and dimensional structure between fan fiction and other genres is a fascinating topic, but if I get into it I´ll never finish this thing...) And of course "August", rooted as it is in the Potatoverse, carries quite a bit of extra context, one that interacts nicely with both canon and the plot; Nightwing´s predicament would have been less poignant if he hadn´t had an adopted orphan child (as he himself is) he might die on (as Thomas Wayne did on Dick´s adoptive father). We know Spud, and Spud´s history and fears, and we also know about Dick´s history, and about Bruce´s... Quite a few things to know, but they do provide a rich background --- one you´d need an entire book to establish if you were starting anew (Again, I´m in danger of going off in a tangent, carried away by the semiotic implications of the whole idea of parallel continuities in fan fiction; I won´t, but they are there).
Those forms of context being the bread-and-butter of fan fiction, "August" made a breakthrough by using a new way of establishing context: time.
Usually, one of the chiefs pleasures of writing and reading lies on the way you can just ignore time (except deadlines, I´m afraid). Inside a fictional world time is in the writer´s control, and you can fold, spindle and mutilate your narrative in any chronological structure you think might help you carry on your story. But the price you pay, as a writer, is that you have no control over the passage of time in the reader´s universe; she can also fold, spindle and mutilate her reading in any chronological structure she might find interesting or practical. She might pause for snack, skip a few pages, or lie the book down until the next summer holidays. That forces the writer, in his various manipulations of time, to somehow *induce* in the reader the signs, although not the substance, of time. In the essentially timeless realm of the written word, time is one of those things that must be created by the author. This has forced the growth of a few millennia´s worth of textual conventions, a very practical and effective apparatus to sketch the ebbs and flows of time. And the very "chronological disadvantage" of the written word it what allows it to be such a powerful tool for intellectual analysis, making possible neat tricks like laws, science and civilization itself (and let´s not forget comics).
On the other hand, the technical advantages of the last couple of centuries (from quick presses to the almost instantaneous internet), have allowed the possibility of somehow inserting text into time. A newspaper, hardly having the claim to immortality or quality of a well-written book, engages our interest nonetheless by the fact of being timely, of sharing with us that little piece of time we call "present". Those of us that were online during 9-11, to put a rather extreme example, felt firsthand how the incoming reports, hints, counterhints, personal mails and instant messages weaved a picture often as shocking as the television images --- and much more intense than any post-facto report or account. When you nail a word into the now, you are giving it an expiration date as such, but you are also making it extremely powerful... In a world where distance doesn´t exist, the thing that defines reality itself is often the "LIVE" sign in the TV screen, or the near real-time date of a mail or text message. It is not surprising, after all: no matter how infinite, abstract or demented the timelines our intellects can grasp (and, as a mathematician, I deal with all of those), our emotions are primarily physical, rooted in time. Even the beating of a distressed (or happy) heart, the archetypical emotional reaction, is but a temporal phenomenon.
"August" gains a lot of its power from that rooting in time. Thanks to a superb (and, in the genre, quite unparalleled) degree of effort and coordination between a lot of extremely talented people, the pieces of "August" arrived to our mailboxes in perfectly timed intervals. In another culture, in another time, that would have been merely amusing. But we live in a society with instant communications, and thus a sufficient criteria for reality is synchronicity. The people on the net exist (in a phenomenological sense, I mean), because their give timely answers to each other questions, and because we all read the same global news (or comic book releases, or the latest chapter of "FLUX") at the same time. Space being meaningless, we are together in Time.
Last year, besides our readings, our discussions, and the mailing list address, we had only one thing in common, all over the world: It was August. We had been warned.
So, with a precise timing that rivalled Reuters...
a mixture of powerful plot and some amazing purely descriptive scenes...
and a through mastery of the characters´ pasts and souls...
"August" got real, real close to reality.
Close enough, in fact.
Given what I´ve noted above, part of what makes "August" unique is the way it rests upon and extends the particular strengths of both its technical and social environments. It couldn´t have been written without the social and technological links that allowed the team to work together (instant messengers, mails, and the time-honored institution of the beta, for example), but in its complexity probably pushed a bit their envelope. Also, it couldn´t have been deployed without the existence of the mailing lists, the immediacy of email, and the communities built around them. But most importantly, it would have been meaningless without years of shared stories and discussions, from "The Last Laugh" to the first Spud story, from the death of Jason to the gradual, amazing growth of Cassandra.
From two dead bodies lying in Crime Alley to a dying man in Bludhaven.
Taking the long view, it took an awful lot to make "August".
And from every point of view, it was worth it.