Paleo E-books: The Superguy mailing list
April 26, 2009 | 5:25 pm
In the last few years, e-books have stopped being an early adopters’ toy and started attracting more general interest. People are starting to get the idea that perhaps reading off of screens—especially LCD or e-ink screens held in the palm of one’s hand—may not be so bad after all.
But for a small yet active number of people (mostly college students), “reading off the screen” has been going on for as long as twenty-two years. Before the term e-book was in common use, before the World Wide Web was widespread, college students with too much time on their hands were writing stories and sending them over the Internet through various mailing lists and other forums.
Though these forums were all different, what they had in common was the collaborative, shared-universe nature of the projects. As with the published Thieves’ World and Wild Cards projects, authors would write their own separate stories set in the same world, but their characters would occasionally meet with each other, or be affected by events that happened in others’ stories.
Some of these forums are still active; many of them are dead or mostly dead. What they all have in common is that they have left behind copious archives of material. Some of it is all right, some of it is terrible, but a lot of it still stands up well even today.
In my next few columns, which I’ve decided to call “Paleo E-books,” I will look at some of these forums. I’m going to start with one of the oldest: The Superguy mailing list, which began in 1989 as an offshoot of the SFSTORY list started in 1987. That’s twenty-two years of history—and over twelve and one half million words of archives.
The Superguy mailing list was started as a parody of the conventions and characters of comic books (and superhero stories in general). (SFSTORY, which was later incorporated into the SG list, was similar but for science-fiction stories.) In its heyday, some of the more popular characters included Dangerousman (a man who could create nuclear blasts by stomping his foot), Rad (a California valley surfer dude with the power to fly and fire psychokinetic blasts), and Ramrod (a trenchcoat-wearing, bat-toting anti-heroic vigilante).
Although there was some fanfic or near-fanfic writing (including some of the writing I did for Superguy myself), most of the writing consisted of original characters combined with parody or satire. (Rad’s stories featured parodies of Lum from the animé Urusei Yatsura and Kei and Yuri from Dirty Pair, for instance.) The setting started out largely humorous, but over time a number of more serious storylines crept in.
The writing quality started out fairly uneven—and stayed fairly uneven, but the average quality level improved over time as less serious writers dropped out and the ones who stuck around got better. The collaborative nature of the list and the writing process meant that writers could get feedback from other writers and readers, and improve their storytelling ability.
Still, looking back it sometimes seems that what the list gained in quality it lost in energy. Unpolished as it is, the early stuff has a kind of spark to it where you can tell the writers are just plain having fun with it, banging the keys like mad for the sheer unholy joy of participating in the mass craziness. (But on the other hand, the series that have been posted to the list over the last couple of years are easily as well-written as anything you would pay money for, so it balances out.)
Eric Burns, one of the writers, described it thus:
Most of all, we were convinced we were on the cusp of something amazing—a whole new way of looking at fiction, of storytelling, of distribution without editors and without men in suits deciding if our schlock was commercial enough. If four of the more experienced Authors wanted to post an incoherent story about Weasel-based superheroes, they just did. If I wanted to write a story about a lead character who got shot in the stomach as a running gag, I just did.
And yeah, going back and rereading my old Superguy stories, I can see a whole lot of unmitigated garbage. […] But every so often, I see something really good. And I remember how proud I was of it.
And I would tend to agree. When I look back at my early writing for the Superguy mailing list, I often groan—but just as often, I find a surprising number of clever bits (if I do say so myself) that I had entirely forgotten about. And, of course, many of the other writers’ stuff tends to be far better than my own. Through my writing for Superguy, I met a circle of friends with whom I continue to hang out on-line to this day.
Some of the Superguy writers went on to professional publication or fame as webcomic artists or bloggers. One Superguy writer who contributed only a handful of episodes, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, would later co-found Wikipedia. (It takes all kinds.)
Superguy’s heyday was in the early- to mid-1990s, when there were several hundred subscribed readers and over a dozen active writers. By the late 1990s, many of the original writers had moved on to other projects, or graduated from college and found their day jobs took up so much of their creative energy that they did not have enough to spare to continue writing for Superguy. However, a handful of writers continue to update their stories, and new authors are always welcome—Superguy is far from dead.
One of the things that sets Superguy apart from other collaborative fiction projects is the completeness and organization of its archives. Somehow, they survived all the way from their original posting to the present day, and they have been organized for search and retrieval using an “autocollector” CGI script. (Episodes too new to have been archived there can be retrieved from the mailing list’s automatic archive site.)
Fun series to try reading include Dangerousman by Bill Dickson and Rad by Gary Olson. However, given how the stories tend to cross over with each other, a more rewarding experience might simply be to start reading the archives as a whole in chronological order. But there’s one slight problem.
Superguy was born in the age of terminal-based, monospace-font, ASCII-text-only e-mail, before the advent of Gmail and other rich-text-based email systems. Hence, Superguy episodes are hard-wrapped at around 65 to 72 character margins. This means that, to modern word processing (and e-book creation) software, each line counts as its own individual “paragraph”—and reading it on anything except a big-screen web browser can be an ugly experience.
There are ways around this, of course. Some word processors can do re-wrapping of wrapped text, as can the emacs text editor. And a friend wrote some perl scripts that can also unwrap indented or space-separated text. If you are capable of running perl scripts, you can use “unfoldindented” to unwrap indentation-separated texts, and “unfoldblank” to unwrap blank-line-separated texts. (You may also wish to search and replace two spaces with one, since the typographical conventions for monospace and proportional fonts are different.)
Once the text is unwrapped, it can be run through the text-to-e-book converter of your choice and loaded into your e-book reading app or device. (I use txt2pdbdoc, myself—since it’s ASCII text anyway, it does not need the advanced formatting options from more recent converters.)
All the same, this is an imperfect solution. It requires a pretty decent amount of computer expertise to be able to run perl scripts, and the unique formatting or ASCII art in some of the episodes may show up strangely in the conversion. But if there is a better way, I’d like to hear what it is, as this is a common problem with ASCII-based writing forums, including email and Usenet. In fact, just about every every different forum I will be covering has this same problem to some extent, and a better solution would be welcome.
So, next time you think about whether you like “reading off of a screen,” consider that a bunch of college students (and their fans) were doing it over twenty years ago. And they’ve left behind them a legacy of seriously good and funny stuff. (And, to be fair, also some pretty lousy stuff. But finding the good makes wading through the bad worthwhile.)