alt.fan.pratchett : What Is AFP?

What Is AFP?


How to cope with alt.fan.pratchett

Colette Reap

This article first appeared in the Sept 95 in Matrix, the news magazine of the British Science Fiction Association.

Deep in the morass of Usenet, beset by alt.binaries.multimedia and rec.arts.sf, the unwary net lurker comes across what is, at first sight, a peaceful clearing free from flamewars, unsullied by AOLers, and devoted to the works of the most consistently funny fantasy writer working today, one Terry Pratchett. Yes, the lurker has found alt.fan.pratchett, and there then follows a moment of delicious anticipation as he awaits enlightenment on forthcoming works, signing tours, explanations of some of the more abstruse references in the texts, and general discussions on the implications thereof.

It is perhaps unfortunate that he then starts reading some of the articles, for at this point, he becomes totally confused, a sad state of affairs for the editor of a respected SF journal.

But fear not, dear reader, for there is a happy end to this tale. At the infamous MooseCon (or Confabulation, according to its literature), our anonymous editor fell into conversation with one of the strange denizens of alt.fan.pratchett, and received enlightenment. Overcome with gratitude (or something like that), he impetuously asked her to produce a piece explaining some of the insanities to the readers of Matrix. This is the result. ---

So tell me about alt.fan.pratchett.

Initially, alt.fan.pratchett appears to be a normal newsgroup. But fairly quickly, one of its idiosyncrasies becomes apparent: many of the thread titles begin with '*R*' or '*I*'. This, though, is a minor foible: it's the subject matter of these threads that may be baffling.

First we should ask 'what' (or possibly 'why') is alt.fan.pratchett? Although nominally the newsgroup dedicated to discussion of the works of Terry Pratchett[2], one of the first things that the reader discovers about afp (for such is its usual abbreviation) is that its threads mutate away from the subject line faster than you can say 'polymorphic inheritance'. While threads may be started by someone who wants to say something about one of Terry's books, many, nay most, veer off at a tangent.

The lurker should perhaps consider afp to be two newsgroups, masquerading under the same name. The first would be better titled rec.arts.books.pratchett, consisting of serious discussions on such subjects as the plotlines of the novels and the mechanics of the Discworld, and this is what many are initially looking for. [3]

Unfortunately for these innocents, there is a second afp, which is a general free-for-all between people who assume that the other readers have similar interests, and who will start threads with no apparent relevance to the subject at hand. Frequently, these threads will maintain the same title that they had previously, with the result that an article titled 'Dragon digestion' may actually discuss the mating habits of the Boeing 747. (For those that are interested, it appears that the result is not the Learjet, nor even the HS 146, but rather a small submarine larva that eventually creeps ashore near Seattle, pupates in a large hanger, and eventually emerges as a full grown Jumbo.)

Some of the tangents are well-worn paths, which include discussions about beer, roundabouts, bread, merkins[4], children's t.v. programs, quantum mechanics and proposals.

Another tendency is for some afpers visiting other newsgroups to crosspost apparently relevant articles to afp. These then frequently mutate, thereafter causing much consternation to the original group from which they were crossposted.

Who are we?

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the posters are in the UK, although there is a strong representation from Australia, New Zealand and America[5]. There are also regulars in Eire, Germany, South Africa, Scandinavia and The Netherlands. An indication of the international nature of the group can be surmised from the fact that the afp FAQ[6] is maintained by Orin Thomas in Australia, and the APF[7] is maintained by Leo Breebaart in The Netherlands (both of whom, by the way, do a magnificent job). There are also a number of web pages scattered around the globe - for example Colm Buckley at Trinity College, Dublin has scanned in the Clarecraft catalogue of Discworld figures and jewellery[8].

Of those in the UK, a fairly high proportion are university students. A certain amount of trepidation pervades the group as September approaches - as in many newsgroups, it sometimes gets called 'newbie season' as the new intake of students arrive at university and many hit the net for the first time, with all that that entails. The flurry of activity that this causes usually dies down by about November. The other main flurry of 'activity' tends to happen in May and June, round about finals time - personally, I put it down to stress :-)

On the whole, we are a friendly bunch. Like most groups, we have our up and downs (thankfully with nothing like the level of vitriol or flaming I have seen flying around in other groups). I tend to agree with the description mooted a while back, that it is like nipping down to your local for a pint and a natter with the regulars.

What's this about *R* and *I*?

Because of the dual nature of afp, (and because the volume of posting is quite high, especially during university term time) a consensus was reached in the group that people should indicate the nature of the content of the thread in the subject line - not by the title of the thread: as explained above, that can be completely misleading - but by a series of codes. The idea is that it allows people to skip those threads in which they have no interest.

The first two to be adopted were *R* and *I*, which was an attempt to indicate the spilt between the two parts of afp. A thread with an *R* in the subject line supposedly indicates that the posting contains something relevant, such as news about Terry (signing tour details, television/radio appearances, performances of the plays based on the Discworld books and serious comment about his writing) or news about Discworld merchandise[9]. *I* (for irrelevant) indicates that the thread has wandered off to discuss things like the sexual dimorphism of hovercraft, or quantum butterflies. Posters are expected to retitle the thread with the relevant code when it crosses the ill defined border between the two, and though this doesn't always happen, one may quite effectively filter afp by only reading the articles with the *R* code in.

The Annotated Pratchett

One of the joys of reading Terry's works is that, especially in the Discworld novels, the books are peppered with veiled references to things in this world. Although the Discworld may be a flat world resting on the backs of four giant elephants, who in turn are standing on the back of an even bigger turtle which is slowly swimming through space, the characters thereupon are far from your standard 'Another flagon of your best ale, landlord' fantasy characters, and much of Terry's effect is due to his deliberate contrast of the setting with everyday references from our own world.

As a result, one of the favourite pastimes of afpers is annotating Terry's books. Many of these references come from popular culture - for instance, the Blues Brothers, Dirty Harry and Meatloaf - but others may be from classical mythology or modern physics. Eventually, these annotations tend to be collected together and published in the Annotated Pratchett File (or APF, which causes a certain amount of confusion in its naming).

Somewhat inevitably, a new code, *A*, was adopted to signify these annotations. This allows those afpers who haven't yet had the chance to read one of the books, either because it's as yet unavailable in paperback, or because the publishing schedule in other parts of the world is still far from consistent, to avoid 'spoiler' articles.

Oh, no, not the game!

Some months ago, a Discworld graphic adventure game was released, initially for the PC. After an initial flurry, it was recognised that a large number of posts started 'Help, I'm stuck at.....' etc., so *G* was introduced, and a game FAQ and walkthrough created[10]. The consensus appears to be that the game has wonderfully atmospheric graphics, the dialogue is very nicely done, but that it could really have done with more playtesting, and that some of the puzzles seem to lack all sense, even in retrospect.

'Colette, will you marry me?'

One of the more unusual traditions of afp is the marriage proposal. Originally, the first proposal came from a lad impressed by the sense of humour of one of the female posters, and was regretfully declined by its recipient on the grounds that she was already married, although this was felt by onlookers to be insufficient reason. However, this has since evolved into a tendency to make such proposals to any (apparently) female poster, especially if she is to mention that she hasn't thus far received one. In order that no-one should be deprived, certain regular posters now propose to just about everyone. As the proposals are seen as a form of friendly greeting, no-one expects the proposee to say 'yes'...[11]

This in turn has spawned a series of challenges to duels between afpers who have proposed to the same person. One duel has actually taken place - fortunately for the participants, the weapons used only fired foam rods.

*F*: Fanac

This electronic atmosphere has moved into the 'real' world. Not content with sitting in front of our screens, we have got out to meet each other. There have been several 'afp meets', mostly in pubs, and a couple of months ago an afp meet was organised round a formal hall at Trinity College, Cambridge (thanks, Tony). Meets have also taken place in the States and in Australia.

By the time this appears in print, Bernard, Isobel and Tom Pearson of Clarecraft will have held their 'Discworld Event' - a weekend of fun and games, complete with barbecue and beer tent, at their factory in Woolpit. (On visiting their factory earlier this year being shown round the place, I came away thinking: 'people get paid to do this? - where did I go wrong?!').

And, as an outgrowth of all this, the first Discworld convention will be taking place next year, on June 28th-30th, in Manchester. [13]

Terry and afp

'Does Terry Pratchett really post here?' Yes, he does. One of the myths of afp is the large number of posts asking that question, but, contrary to popular rumour, I can't recall seeing a posting to the group asking that - however, I've only been in the group for just under two years, and it may well have been a problem in earlier days. However, he does get a lot of email asking 'Are you really the Terry Pratchett?' (Apparently, he knows of two others.)

Much of the flavour of afp is due to Terry's presence, and there is an assumption that anything that interests him is somehow relevant. He will occasionally (not too frequently, we hope, he has books to write) join in, and many thread traditions derive from his interest in small microcomputers and a regrettable liking for the game DOOM.

However, although he is the raison d'etre of afp, his position is more that of a constitutional monarch rather than a dictator - when asked for his opinions on how something should be done, his response is likely to be along the lines of 'hey guys, this is your group, not mine'. The only matter in which he has expressed a preference is that fan fiction shouldn't be posted to afp itself, as it might interfere with his own ideas. However, if alt.fan.pratchett.creative were to be set up, he is not expected to object.

As for his own feelings on afp - well, that is beyond the scope of this article.

Conclusion

To return to the 'afp is like a pub' metaphor, when you go to a new pub, it can seem a bit strange the first few times. Then you begin to recognise people and start to feel comfortable about joining in conversations, and before long you're one of the regulars too. So what are you waiting for?

Footnotes (an afp speciality)

[1] See footnote 4.

[2] Or Pterry, as he is often referred to on afp. This started after the publication of 'Pyramids' which contained characters called 'Ptraci' and 'Pteppic'.

[3] In which case, the reader should look for alt.books.pratchett, which was created specifically for those who couldn't take the volume and/or irrelevance on a.f.p. - see above in 'What's this about *R* and *I*?'. There is also alt.fan.pratchett.announce, used for...announcements - of fan meets, signing tours and the odd engagement.

[4] It's a pubic wig

[5] We're back to Merkins again.......:-)

[6] The afp FAQ can be found in The Pratchett Archives[12].

Editor's Note: Also available here

[7] The APF can be found in The Pratchett Archives

Editor's Note: Also available here

[8] Colm Buckley's web page address is http://www.colm.buckley.name/

[9] As provided by Stephen 'CMOT' Briggs and Clarecraft. Stephen sells Unseen University scarves, the A.F.P. tee-shirt, the A.F.P. tie and the 'Turtle Moves' tee-shirt. Stephen also writes and appears in stage adaptations of the Discworld books. He can be contacted at sbriggs@cix.compulink.co.uk. Clarecraft, who can be contacted via elton@lspace.org , (or see the Clarecraft part of the Merchandise section in L-Space) produce the Discworld figures, Discworld-related jewellery and A.F.P-related jewellery, namely the anorankh. Don't ask....

[10] The game faq can be found in The Pratchett Archives[12].

Also available here

[11] However, as the exception that proves the rule, The Bellinghman proposed to me on afp and we are getting married at the end of 1996.

[12] The Pratchett Archives' home site is http://www.lspace.org/

[13] ...and here you are... :-)


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