A Paradox Between Worlds by Autumn Chen
The hardest part of the day is the alarm, the moment when an internal world shatters under the invasion of a contingency of compromises, obligations, alienations, austere actuality in which what is hidden is suppressed, in which what matters is imposed, is erased by the imposed. After you manage to stir out of bed, then momentum takes hold, you stream down the river, unable to hold onto anything, you are thrust towards an endless depth we know will one day swallow us, but there, before all the fractious and fracturing, in that serene moment you lie where dreams still suffuse about you, you can almost believe you elsewhere awake, spared in the glossy otherwise, commingling of toucheds, what is more powerful than a dream shared?
Fandoms create communities of possibility out of a shared passion, in which we can exist more real than real, hyperreal. Enter into this new world, the Shadowverse, in which new powers take hold, truths denied in the silent austerity of other communal interpretations of reality can flourish. “You scroll through your dashboard for a few minutes. Nightblogging has begun. People all over the country, all over the world, all connecting for a few brief moments to revel in their love for a certain media franchise.” Strewn across continents in isolated pockets, far from friends and family, we craft little homes on an internet so vast and inhospitable, dreams we inhabit long into the night, a life more real than the moonlight stark machinery of living.
You fill your home with stories, a framework in which life can flourish afresh. Fanfics create characters as avatars, inviting you to inhabit their world, with physical attributes like hair color being worth repeatedly stressing so that you can identify yourself in a representation: “the blonde boy”, the girl “with raven black hair”, where do you fit in? Take a “Which Nebulaverse element are you” quiz to solidify an identity in the terms of a shared communal referent. Who am I in the context of this fandom? How do the stories told herein create a language in which I can be told? When I get a “Stone” result, perhaps I can see it in myself, it almost feels true, I can reach through the arbitrary shifting layers of fandom lore to discover some underlying seed (totes a Stone thing to do obvs #StoneArmy #StoneAugurs #QuizLyfe #Shadowverse). Immersion in fandom as a kaleidoscope by which to grasp unexpected elements of your generatables. “You know what you are, deep inside. You contain within you a seed, the germ of an entire story, the story of your life and the stories of your world. It will take root one day, and it will germinate, and it will change not only you but all those around you. You will become someone…” In a fandom, the community builds, story by story, a liveable fantasy, dreams intersecting, even in contradictions, an artifact which grows deeper, more real, more human, more capable of your humanity, the more you lose yourself within it. This is a real place, with real people, with its own digital landscape: “Online weather report: vibes steady. Chance of callouts: <1%. The blogging equivalent of a bright, cloudless summer day.”
The fantasy recasts itself back on the real world, granting us the terminology to rephrase the terrifying and chaotic contingencies of history into a cohesive storyline: “Does anyone else think that Gali’s character arc in Book 4 is a metaphor for the Obama presidency? Think about it: the heir to the empire sacrifices the Administrator (academia) and betrays Astra (social programs) in order to suck up to the fascist dictator Ariel (the GOP), who feels an irrational loyalty to the Demiurge (Reagan), a figure whom Ariel does not truly know or understand. / Gali then goes on to confront Tycho (the increasingly dispossessed and disillusioned middle class) and Bruno (Bruno), and is increasingly becoming distant from the Creator (true leftism), who nevertheless has an unreasonable amount of trust in him despite his failures at enacting the Creator’s goals. / It just makes too much sense.” It does make too much sense, but isn’t that why we need to believe it, out of fear of the other option, that it all just makes no sense at all?
But, more importantly, the fantasy recasts ourselves into the real world, as one fanfic writer discovers: ““Are you okay, Gali?” asked Astra. “You haven’t spoken this whole time.” / “Y-yeah,” she replied. “I’m okay.” But the secret weighed heavily on her mind. No one knew that Gali wasn’t a boy anymore, but they would find out soon enough.” Using the comfortable and familiar as a way of processing the difficult and unknown. “What is the “true nature” of a person, anyhow, Gali wondered. Was there some essence that made her, her? Were there alternate versions of her?” Using the colors of a new world to paint ourselves anew, to discover portraits we cannot see mirrored in old containments. Possibilities furnish us with vibrancies that seem to thrum stronger than our own pulse, a system of magic powerful enough to capture our most arcane vitalities: “Astra pulls you by the arm, from the library you found yourself in, through the sunlit corridors of the academy, to the labs where she always seemed to make her home. Metal magic courses through labyrinthine machinery, illuminating the otherwise bleak surroundings in a dazzling prism of color.” And yet it remains virtual, both fragile and powerful. In a message between you and Luna, you briefly discuss real life, come to disappointing conclusions, then swiftly retreat back into the safety of the virtual. You’d rather speak the language of the Shadowverse.
But you can’t hide there forever. Is there any way to inhabit alterity inside the numbness normative? Our intrepid fanfic writer seeks to discover it, writing a fic in which the Shadowverse characters enter the real world, experiencing it as a strange place, an uncanny flicker of the escapist dream struggling to reintegrate, to find some way to approach the real world with the identity constructed in the fandom, hold together the power and meaning of a community as it glitches out of its phantasmal surface, creeps into the way you interpret your own world: ““So, how do we get back to our world?” you ask. / But before anyone can answer, then you begin to taste cherries once more. You feel a falling sensation. The two girls disappear from view. It, whatever “it” is, begins again.” What is it we are immersed in, and why is not us who are so immersed?
The real world is creeping into your safe harbor. You wake up and log onto your fantasy world only to see that it has fallen apart in your sleep, you sift through the shards, try to put as many of them together as you can. Waking up again and again, day after day, trying to subsist on the new content, to feel real within it finally, even as you see others disappear, as the world seems no longer to open up through the fantasy, the fantasy is collapsing, you are simply in the world again. Nothing is real, everything is simply real. In the despair, can you cling to each other, rebuild safety between each other? What happens when the online world proves as dangerous and hateful as the real world? The fandom shatters as, a la Rowling, the creator threatens the canon with their flaws. We watch Luna panic: “So I got called a brain-dead degenerate by gtm. Fun fun fun fun fun I’m fine I’m doing fine I’m doing fine I’m okay I’m okay” The virtual is always contingent upon the terms under which we are allowed to participate. The ability for others closer to the heart of the fandom to nullify our participation, to cast us out as a deviation. How our real world status continually reappears even in the depths of escapist fantasy. All of these painful ideas are doused in gasoline and set alight by the weird obsessiveness of online hate comments, the way such messages feel almost unreal, demonbabble of some gremlin latching onto your consciousness, how so impossible it seems that a human being would actually write something like that to someone else, and yet it happens en masse every single day on social media, that terrifying mediator, in which are we constantly gauged as products: “You’ve gained 1 follower and lost 2 followers, for a current total of 109 followers. Your top ship has been inconsistent, which might have lost followers. You haven’t been reblogging enough posts, which might have lost followers.” Social standing as marketing. The extent to which your brand appeals to consumers. What does it mean when a foundational element of human connection is the Like? Every statement measured by the extent to which it wins us approval. If they don’t like you, they will turn on you. You will lose everyone. You will reach zero and be judged deserving.
As the digital too denies her, we follow Luna’s confrontation with the lies that have overwritten her, as she tries to reclaim the self she constructed in the terms of the fandom, even as the fandom dissipates its power, becomes a hostile noland. Our own fanfic empathizes, as at the end of an adventure, a character says, “Yeah, Capella told me about what happens with you wanderers when you find yourself in a world in which you’re no longer needed, where you don’t belong…” We understand that we must be able to survive this shattering, that we must become more than this place: “Capella stares at you. “Sometimes I wanted to stay too. Sometimes there was a place that seemed good. But it was always too good to be true. I don’t know how I ended up here, but… something felt right about this place. Maybe you’ll find a story of your own one day.””
And yet, how do we sustain ourselves without the magic that once empowered us? Born into a new name, yet struggling to reframe: “@icemoongirl: sometimes it’s hard to know what to talk about without the n*bulaverse fandom stuff like, providing a guide.”
Who can speak, when the language is lost? We can only follow our passions one at a time, as in that first album by Lorde that this story delights in referencing, a fragile beauty that has never quite been recreated by her subsequent albums, yet which can still sound within us eternally, remind us of a time when this passion gave us the life and color we needed to make it just beyond the riverbend.