I was contacted the other day by a wonderful representative from St. Martin’s press who asked me if I would be interested in receiving and reviewing a copy of a book by Brent Spiner called Fan Fiction. I was immediately interested because any Star Trek fan worth a gram of quadrotriticale knows that Spiner played Data on The Next Generation and, beyond that beloved and iconic role, he is an immensely funny and talented individual. Reading an autobiography written by him, delivering all the juicy unknown details of what went down behind the scenes on TNG would be amazing.
So, imagine my surprise when I received the book and it was, in fact, not an autobiography… rather, it was billed on its cover as a “mem-noir…” a fictional story inspired by true events. What those true events are is unknown and will probably remain buried in Spiner’s neural net until he is deactivated, but rather than be disappointed that Fan Fiction was not the juicy autobiography I envisioned, I was still fascinated. A fictionalized account of the non-fictional people behind Star Trek: The Next Generation and a noir mystery to boot? If anything, I was more curious.
Fan Fiction takes place in the 1990’s during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In it, Brent Spiner the actor, receives a… well, let’s just call it an inappropriate package in his fan mail, and comes to the realization that he has a stalker who has not only taken the identity of Data’s fictional daughter, Lal, but is also planning to kill him. Spiner contacts the FBI, gets a bodyguard, and tries to continue his glitzy life as a niche celebrity with the oppressive knowledge that each breath he takes could be his last.
Fan Fiction is a riot. This may be a book that will be appreciated strictly by fans of Data and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but that is one of the things I enjoyed about it most. This is a book that feels like it was aimed for me and people like me. There is really no attempt made to broaden the appeal to a larger audience, rather Spiner intentionally, it seems, wrote the book for the people that would appreciate it the most.
And that makes me feel so darn special.
But that really is what the book is: It’s an examination of the symbiotic relationship between the fan and the celebrity, relating with no small measure of affection that one cannot live without the other and, despite this, hardships ensue on both sides when that balance is disrupted. Although the book revolves around fans that take their obsession too far, Spiner never once degrades his legion of fans for their devotion. Rather, he loves them for it and appreciates them for it.
For example (and minor spoilers here for those of you who didn’t grow up in the 1990’s), Spiner and the cast are shown to have great affection for Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, who Spiner portrays as a man who lives large and loves large. Roddenberry’s appearances in the book show him to be a mentor… a father figure that Spiner and the rest of the cast look up to.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, Spiner relates the sad tale of Roddenberry’s passing and funeral and, before the memorial service, Spiner is approached in the cemetery by a couple of men wearing Star Trek uniforms. Here comes the part, I thought, where he’s going to let them have it for waving their nerd flags during a completely inappropriate time. He admits that he fights the urge to laugh at them.
But the men hand Spiner a “clumsily drawn” illustration of Gene Roddenberry, Jules Verne, and William Shakespeare to share with the rest of the cast and pledge to the actor to uphold Gene’s vision of a utopian future and infinite diversity in infinite combinations for as long as they live before giving him a Vulcan salute and leaving him in peace.
“I awkwardly return the sign, though in truth, my fingers don’t ever get that exactly right. But they deserve the attempt. Feeling guilty at my initial impulse to laugh, I appreciate their dedication to something bigger than them, and certainly bigger than me.– Brent Spiner, Fan Fiction, Page 187
That’s it. That’s the book.
Fan Fiction may be a story about obsessive fans and a paranoid actor, but in truth, it is about a relationship between the two halves. Spiner’s humor runs deep, but never becomes cutting or cruel. He loves and appreciates his fans and it shows even in this deeply hyperbolic tale.
Since it is a story of exaggeration, Spiner portrays his costars as amusing caricatures, giving them a proper public ribbing. In particular, and with all of the material available, you would think that Patrick Stewart would be the biggest target, but it’s Levar Burton who gets the funniest treatment; an obsession with new age mediation, lavender oil, and crystals. Again, this book has me wondering how much is true and how much is made up.
Just like his treatment of the fans, his lampooning of his celebrity costars is never mean or too cutting. They are shown to be his rock, his saviors, and his idols. The way he writes about Patrick Stewart always carries an extra air of reverence and respect of his craft and of Stewart as a human being.
But, really… how could one not?
The narrative of Fan Fiction is presented three fold. First, there is the story of the stalker, the FBI agent, the bodyguard, and Spiner’s attempt to live with the danger permeating his life. Then, there is a recurring B-plot in which another fan sends him obsessive letters and has deluded herself into thinking that they have a relationship with each other. Finally, Spiner – in dreams and hallucinations – tells the story of his rocky and abusive relationship with his stepfather, Sol.
On my first read through, I began to misinterpret this three pronged approach as a meandering story… the plot of the book fraying and going in different directions which disappointed me as, overall, Spiner’s humor kept me interested and engaged in the writing while the story sailed off to God knows where. Thankfully, at the end, the frayed lines of the story re-knit themselves into an intersection where all makes sense and the themes of the book become clear. The narrative never becomes frayed, it just approaches the point in three different directions.
In the end, I found Fan Fiction to be a marvelous read. Dark-edged humor that never becomes cruel or punches down, it is a tale stuffed with affection and heart from a writer who has apparently found peace with his place in the weird and wacky world he found himself in when he agreed to wear white make up and gold contacts. Brent Spiner’s novel is a gloriously meta examination of celebrity, a “did this happen or is it fictitious?” look behind the curtain, and an engaging story that is sure to delight fans of Star Trek.