George Santayana said “Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” Certainly e-book history has been repeating—the iPod Touch and the Kindle are standing in for the Palm PDA and the RocketBook as another generation discovers e-books just as the early adopters did ten years ago.
But the history that people have been forgetting (or perhaps not knowing to begin with) is that there was a thriving electronic fiction community years before even the earliest commercial e-books were around to be adopted.
Over the last four columns, I have looked at a number of the Internet fiction writing circles that made up this community. To wit:
- The Superguy Mailing List
- The Legion of Net.Heroes & rec.arts.comics.creative
- alt.cyberpunk.chatsubo, alt.pub.dragons-inn, alt.pub.havens-rest
- Animé fanfic and Undocumented Features
These are the forums, filled mostly with college students, that were producing, distributing, and reading electronic literature in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Years before anyone caviled at the idea of reading from a handheld LCD, hundreds of people were thrilling to these tales on their amber and green CRTs, or those gigantic line printers that printed on green and white paper.
Today I’m going end this series with a look at a number of miscellaneous fiction archives and zines from that same era or even earlier. As the title suggests, I will be starting with some archives of collected fiction and nonfiction material, and closing out with zines.
“Zine” can be an abbreviation of “magazine”—but in the Internet sense, it is usually an abbreviation of “electronic magazine” or “e-zine” instead. E-zines were produced like the amateur “fanzines” that came about when Star Trek galvanized fandom in the 1960s—but using electronic distribution instead of the traditional fanzine mimeographs or photocopies. They could cover a variety of topics, but the ones I will be spotlighting here are mostly for original fiction.
But first, there are a few archives to go through.
Transformation Stories Archive
When the World Wide Web came about, people saw it as a great way to aggregate stories based on common themes into theme-based archives. (Gopher and WAIS had been used for this in the past, but neither was as widespread or user-friendly as the web was becoming.)
According to the Wikipedia writeup, the Transformation Stories Archive was founded in 1995 to collect stories relating to physical and mental transformation of all kinds. These stories were taken from a Transformation Stories Archive mailing list, or collected from other areas of the web such as alt.sex.stories (see below).
The site divides the stories up into several categories, such as “Animals,” “Mythical Beasts,” or “The Other Sex,” and there is also a section for some transformation-themed shared worlds. The stories are reformatted into HTML, so can easily be converted for device reading.
Stories that the archivist felt were particularly good are marked with three stars, while stories with prurient content are marked with three Xs. The quality of writing varies, as one would expect from amateur fiction—and some of the stories (especially the X-marked stories) veer into strange territory (such as transformation-as-fetish, or even vorarephilia).
Due to disruptions caused by a server change, the TSA has not been updated with new material since 2003. However, members of the Transformation Stories Archive mailing list have created a successor site to host new stories at shifti.org.
alt.sex.stories and the a.s.s. Text Repository
When college students—young men and women at the peak of their hormonal activity—encounter a textual medium for communicating with other people, some of the results are predictable. According to Wikipedia, the newsgroup alt.sex.stories was created in 1992. A few years later, it spawned a moderated newsgroup so that those seeking higher-quality erotic stories would have a better source of material.
The kinds of stories that appeared on the a.s.s. groups are exactly what you would expect—but given that “erotica-related titles […] are among the hottest sellers at some major e-bookstores” it should not be surprising that “e-rotica” was popular even before e-books came around. A number of notable erotica writers such as Elf Sternberg (whose Pendorwright series is a noteworthy erotica archive in and of itself) and Mary Anne Mohanraj got their start there.
Over 250,000 tales from alt.sex.stories are collected on the alt.sex.stories Text Repository. (Given that even the entry page is not remotely worksafe, I have elected to leave the link out to prevent unhappy accidents. It may be found through the Wikipedia link above.) The stories are presented in the same hard-wrapped ASCII text form in which they were posted to the group.
Even though this series has been concentrating mostly on the Internet in the early ‘90s, screen reading and writing did not start there. If anything, it started at the same time as the PC revolution in the early ‘80s, when there was a thriving Internet bulletin board culture that was used by computer hobbyists. Instead of BITNET and the Internet, they had FidoNet, a relay system of computers connected by periodical modem dialing. Instead of newsgroups or forums, they had FidoNet relays and file servers.
Back in those days, a lot of text files were written and circulated from relay to relay, file server to file server. People transcribed old humor sources, documents, or books and passed them on, or wrote stories of their own, in order to increase their upload-to-download ratio on file servers so they would be allowed to download more of the other files there.
Textfiles.com is a comprehensive repository for as many of those files and stories and electronic zines as the archivist could find—which is quite a lot of them. Both files from the golden age of FidoNet, and files from the early days of the Internet are represented.
For people like me, who got in on the tail end of BBS culture and the beginning of Internet culture, this is a major trip down memory lane. There is a lot of original historical material here, things that people back in the day thought was important to get down. Instructions on how to use the Internet, humor files about 50 ways to confuse your roommate, lists of “warez” FTP sites (long defunct by now)—it’s all here.
There is also a fairly lengthy list of electronic magazines, or e-zines, that were being circulated at the time. There are dozens of them, devoted to all different subjects—humor, fiction, hacking. (Lots of them about hacking.) Of special interest to me was the archive of M00se Droppings, a humor zine founded by some of the same people who launched the Superguy mailing list I covered in my first column.
All the text files are presented in their original hard-wrapped ASCII text format. The design of the site itself, green text on black background, is meant to evoke the green screens of the old ASCII text terminal days. It can be a little wearing on the eyes after a while, but fortunately the designer has made a black on white color scheme available as well for the file lists. Nonetheless, Readability may be a good bet for the rest of the site.
Another archive of history and miscellaneous material from the early days of the Internet can be found on nethistory.dumbentia.com.
Apart from all the zines listed at textfiles.com, there are a number of e-zines worth mentioning on their own. The first of these is Dargon, which is about the only still-active shared-universe project with a legitimate claim to being older than the SFStory/Superguy list that started in 1987—Dargon started in 1984 as a more general fantasy and science-fiction related zine called FSFnet (for Fantasy and Science Fiction on the Internet—no relation to the Free Software Foundation).
In 1985, some of the FSF writers decided they wanted to get together to create a shared fantasy setting, called Dargon, Over the next few years, the setting gradually took over the magazine until it was renamed to DargonZine in 1988. It has continued, publishing several issues a year, to this day.
Dargon has an archive of back-issues available in both HTML and text formats. The HTML versions should not be hard at all to convert to device e-readable format. Recent DargonZine issues are also available for the Kindle for 99 cents each.
Another pair of notable fiction zines are Intertext and Quanta. Intertext ran for 57 issues from 1991 through 2004—a remarkable run for an Internet publication. The archives are available, formatted in HTML.
Quanta was slightly earlier, and ran from 1989 to 1995. HTML formatted stories from it can be found in an archive.org archive of the defunct etext.org site. It contained fiction, but also some nonfiction articles such as this rant from Peter A. David about the studio inconsistencies that plagued his work on Star Trek tie-in properties.
There are many more e-zines than I could cover in this column. Apart from the zine archives at textfile.com, John Labovitz’s E-Zine List also offers links that can lead to many hours of interesting browsing through the history of the net.
Thus ends my look back at the fiction and other writings from the golden era of the Internet, BITNET, and FidoNet. Of course, no column could cover all of the writing lists and forums and zines that were around back in the day, but I think I at least hit the high points.
So next time you’re looking for something interesting to read, consider visiting some of the sites I’ve mentioned in these columns and checking out some “Paleo E-books”.