Thursday, February 20, 2014

The million monkeys.

For starters, let me just say this: I love monkeys.

It's not a perjorative term to me, by any means. And the concept of the millionth monkey who types Shakepeare . . . now I really like that one. Even came up with a concept for a superhero once called the Millionth Monkey, about a guy who figured out how to fly just by random applications of physics. (Yes, physicists, that makes little sense, but let's talk about monkeys.) So it's not surprising that looking at what modern fan fiction has become, I started thinking of the million monkeys.

There's a temptation, when first coming upon the infinite variety of Sherlocks and Johns that is Sherlockian fanfic to write it off as immature nonsense, and many a Sherlockian does stop at that first impression. Winglock, Tunalock, Tutulock (or whatever Sherlock ballerina fanfic is called) . . . there's a "What the hell?" factor that naturally might scare a more conservative type off. But if you step back and look at the big picture, see what's really happening here, it's the most Sherlockian thing of all:

Logical synthesis.

Logical synthesis, mentioned in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," isn't as sexy as the "mind palace" concept, but it's pure, undiluted Sherlock Holmes.

"I have devised seven separate explanations," he explained in that same story, "which would cover the facts as far as we know them." Seven separate ways the world could have produced the circumstances Holmes walked into. Only one of them would be true, meaning that Holmes actually thought up six alternate universes that could have produced the same conditions at that point in time. And alternate universes are a big part of fan fiction these days, a way to respect the integrity of the original work and still explore the possibilities of the contents of that work.

Sherlockian fan fiction has been going on almost as long as Sherlock Holmes. Sherlockians have long liked to fancy things up, so "pastiches" suited us just fine, whether it was the work of professional writers or those who paid a vanity press to publish their Holmes-work. When fan fiction first began its rise with Star Trek fanzines in the sixties, Sherlock Holmes eventually got pulled in, most notably with 1978's inaugural issue of The Holmesian Federation, which celebrated Sherlock/Trek crossovers. (The poem by Edgar Smith in that issue about Moriarty and Darth Vader can be quite a head-scratcher until one notes it is Edgar B. Smith and not Edgar W. Smith.) But were we doing alternate universes back then?

Not really. It was all one big happy universe back then, and pulling Captain Kirk into Sherlock Holmes's universe just made it all the bigger. (Though I'm sure Trekkies thought they were pulling Sherlock into Kirk's universe.) Even in the middle 1990s, when the comb-bound 221 B Baker Street collected Jeremy Brett's Holmes fanfic into four large volumes, writers were still playing in the world that they saw on PBS and on video tape, not tweaking it into their own worlds.

Perhaps the earliest foreshadowing of modern AU fanfic was something like "Teddylock," when Poul Anderson's 1957 book Earthman's Burden, collected tales of a race of cute little bear-folk who mimicked Earth cultures, including Sherlock Holmes. But even that was set in our universe, where Holmes was a human in a book. And, at that, Poul Anderson was just one monkey with one typewriter, and that keyboard certainly wasn't connected to the internet.

A million monkeys typing Twihard fanfic brought us 50 Shades of Grey, which will soon be coming to the big screen in its own right. And while it's far from Shakespeare and hasn't really caused a wave of bondage and S & M to take over our country, its emergence as a popular work in its own right cannot be denied. (Kind of like Elementary . . . sorry, I have a quota to keep up.) Who knows what our lovely million Sherlockian monkeys are going to come up with?

I expect it will be something better than Anastasia Steel and Christian Grey, but, hey, we're starting with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Crafting from such precious metals is bound to bring us something valuable one day. Go, monkeys, go!


  1. Oh dear, what did I do when I sent you a link to the AO3...? ;-D

  2. There are degrees of separation that transmute something Sherlockian into some else. The Sherlock Holmes of "The Holmesian Federation" was still recognizably Doyle's Holmes. The Brett fanfic has that separation from Doyle with Brett-as-Holmes the most important element; the fact that Brett played Holmes in one of the most faithful adaptations of the Canon makes Brettfic very close to Doylean pastiche. However, BBC "Sherlock' fanfic is many steps removed from the Doyle original. I doubt very much that someone without the knowledge that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in a modern-day adaptation of the Canon would consider the various -lock fanfic as "Sherlockian". The reason that E.L. James could publish "Fifty Shades" without Stephanie Meyer suing for copyright infringement is that they are both not "Twilight", fanfic origins notwithstanding. We've already had Poirot and Hastings, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Encyclopedia Brown and Sally Kimball, Monk and Sharona/Natalie, House and Wilson, Goren and Eames, etc.; their DNA recognizable from Holmesian stock. With BBC "Sherlock" fanfic the overwhelming genetic material is Cumberbatch and Freeman. Where art thou Sherlock Holmes?