This post was inspired by a conversation that I had with Gary K Wolfe and M John Harrison while I was in London earlier in the week. It revolves around the concept of “Fan Space”, and I’d better start by remind you what that is.
Fan Space is the space in a work of fiction into which fans find it easy to imagine their own stories. A tightly-plotted, stand-alone novel such as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel has very little Fan Space in it, but a rambling fantasy series such as George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has lots of it. Generally speaking, if you can set a role-playing game, or write lots of fanfic, in a world based on a book, then that book contains lots of Fan Space.
So, Gary and I were talking to Mike about his plans for a new novel. Mike mentioned that it would probably have a fairly ambiguous ending, because he liked reading books where he was given leeway to imagine for himself what happens at the end. Two things occurred to me.
Firstly, I could see the angry reviews from the more fannish side of the Internet. Many readers get really upset when a book doesn’t have a “proper ending,” by which they generally mean a neat (and often happy) conclusion to the plot.
But secondly I realized that what Mike was talking about was Fan Space at the end of the book.
And that’s interesting, because the people who generally complain about ambiguous endings are generally the same people who relish exploiting Fan Space when it occurs anywhere else in a book except at the end. Equally, the sort of folks who like ambiguous endings are generally the sot of people who prefer a self-contained novel to a long, rambling series.
This has left me wondering why this should be so. I can understand a dichotomy between just wanting to be told a complete story and wanting room to add to it yourself; but a dichotomy between wanting to be able to make up stories in the world, and being able to make up the ending of the source work, well, that’s harder to rationalize.