by Phil Geusz
©2005 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
It's so universal it's almost a theme. In fact it's how it happened to me. "I never knew there were other people interested in transformation stories!" people have written to me over and over again. "I've read thousands and thousands of Science-Fiction/Fantasy/whatever stories, trying to find the ones where the protagonist or at least somebody turns into something else. And now, I find not only bunches and bunches of them all collected into one place, but an organized fandom to boot! Wow!"
'Wow', indeed. I know that I personally was overjoyed to discover, in 1996 or so, that there were other people like me who, in a fictional sort of way, liked to put on other bodies and try them out for a while. I first became aware of TF fiction through Thomas Hassan's "Transformation Story Archive" and its associated mailing list. (I've heard that there have been other collections of TF stories collected as TF stories, but if so they are certainly very obscure. It is my belief that the TSA was probably the first of its kind to achieve widespread success or notice.) It took me mere minutes to become hooked; in a single evening (the Archive was much smaller then) I read through most of the 'Blind Pig' stories, much of the 'Winds of Change', and a few others from each of the now-classic site subdivisions. It was love at first sight! I was on the mailing list in minutes flat, once I found mention of it; had posted my (very forgettable) first story within a week; and within a month had begun my first novel.
Almost ten years and many hundreds of thousands of words of fiction later, it's very easy for me (and, I suspect, for everyone else) to forget how small and insignificant our little community is compared to the greater literary world. We remain so pleased, and even perhaps so relieved, to have found each other that we forget what a small pond ours is in the greater scheme of things. TF stories as TF stories are not even recognized as a traditional story-type in the traditional world of publishing. We're almost entirely a self-published electronic phenomenon.
This has its good points and its bad points. On the positive side, artistic movements based on electrons move faster and flow freer than those limited to baser materials. There are now hundreds, if not thousands of web pages out there featuring transformation stories labeled and collected as such, and there is even a regularly-published webzine devoted to the genre, one that has survived and remained on-schedule for many years. (You're reading it right now.) Authors are writing transformation stories specifically-tailored to appeal to transformation-hungry audiences, surely a good thing. There are even websites (and e-zine columns!) dedicated to the discussion and improvement of the art of TF story-writing. Without the internet, almost certainly none of this would have come to pass.
Yet, I cannot help but note that no silver lining is without its dark cloud. The internet has done a lot of bad things for the transformation genre as well as good things. It is immediately clear to anyone who has read any significant quantity of pre-Golden Age SF that, back then, Science Fiction as a genre was so untidy, uncouth, and ill-written that the critics of the era could easily be forgiven for missing the jewels of great promise amidst all the horse manure. At that time, SF was the province of a group of unskilled editors of rather lowbrow taste, who would print virtually any illiterate scrawl in the certain knowledge that their fanbase of True Believers would buy their copies regardless and eat up every word. It took editors of skill and vision, such as John W. Campbell Jr., men and women who demanded excellence from their authors and who did not hesitate to stamp their personal visions of taste and style on a near-formless void, to shape Science Fiction into the magnificent art form that it has become today.
It doesn't take much web-surfing in the world of TF stories to discover that, in many ways, our genre is still mired in the equivalent of SF's pre-Golden Age, where the work of a few gifted devotees is almost lost amidst the barren wastes of mediocrity (and worse). On the Internet all voices are equally loud, so that it is very difficult for the casual fan or newcomer to find the wheat among the chaff. In the days of paper-publishing, setting standards and maintaining the basic structure of a genre was the role of the editor; on today's world-wide-web, even the idea of imposing standards is near-blasphemy. And, the lack of financial compensation is a problem as well. Writing bad stories is easy and fun. It's even easy to post them up on the web so that everyone who knows how to run a Google search can find them. Because it's easy and fun, people do it all the time, dozens of them for each genuinely skilled writer. It's hard to create a truly new and wonderful story, and harder still to remorselessly edit the thing into shape for dozens to hundreds of hours. Because it's hard, and because the internet seems to generate zero revenue as compensation for even the most dedicated and talented author, not many people produce truly excellent fiction.
The way things are, there just isn't much point in producing the kind of high-quality stuff that might cause our art form to mature and in time perhaps be taken seriously by the larger world. The mediocre and worse are in an equally strong competitive position with the truly excellent work. Even the Ursa Major Awards (technically awarded for furry fiction rather than for transformation stories per se, but in practice often awarded to TF writers) are based purely on popularity rather than literary excellence. It's ironic, really. The totally-democratic accessibility which is the internet's greatest strength and hallmark is also proving at the same time to be the greatest force for artistic mediocrity (or worse) that the world has ever known. For how can talented and skilled editors with a vision for the future coach and help writers along in such a structureless environment? And why would they want to, when the work is difficult and the resulting compensation is zilch, nada, and zip all rolled into one?
Who is taking aside the new writers of quality? Who is coaching and encouraging them so that they can achieve greater things still? Who is looking into the future, and imagining what TF stories might someday be? Web-publications like TSAT magazine help, and the editors of them do all they can. However, in the absence of a pay-motivator and the concomitant lack of 'professional' status that means so much to an aspiring writer, their influence can only reach so far.
Where would science fiction be today if it had originated on the Internet, and suffered from the same net-related problems? Still in its pre-Golden Age swamp, I think, producing little of merit and limited to a tiny uber-dedicated fanbase willing to wade through an ocean of wasted ink for every gold nugget they were privileged to enjoy. There would have been no Star Wars, no Dune, no Forever War or Stranger in a Strange Land.
And, quite possibly, no space program. After all, it was well-executed and well-written SF, good enough to be published out in the mainstream, that made people believe that space travel might not be silly and outrageous and against the laws of nature after all. Just like people still think about form-change and genetic engineering...
The internet giveth, and the internet taketh away. Without the internet, we would not have a TF-story fandom at all. With it, I fear that neither we TF-lovers nor humanity as a whole may ever shine half as bright as we are so obviously capable of doing.