What USE is this NET stuff anyway?

Simon Bisson and Pat McMurray

Most fans who have Net access are very aware of how much use they get from the myriad mazes of resources that make up the global computer network called the Internet. We'd like to show you what some of these benefits are: for those who don't connect to the Net, and, especially, for those who are considering plugging their desktop PCs and Macs in to the fabled information super highway.

Once you stop drowning in the waves of raw information and jargon, and start swimming, the Internet is an amazing source of information. The most immediately obvious routes to Net-enlightenment are the USENET news groups: the biggest APA in the world. Among these many, widely varied, discussion groups the dilligent fan will find such gems as rec.arts.sf.written, alt.fandom.cons, alt.fan.pratchett and, yes, even alt.fan.pern. The discussions in these areas ranges from the uninformed to the erudite, but are always entertaining, and often full of snippets of detailed information.

We're often to be found taking part in the hubub of rec.arts.sf.written, one of the Net's busiest newsgroups. Here you can learn interesting things about authors and their novels. For example, a recent discussion explored the story behind the name of the Qeng Ho fleet in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep , which is based on a genuine historical Chinese trading fleet. In the context of the novel this raises a whole boatload of interesting speculations and questions, which were discussed, and argued over, at some length.

Apart from the basic discussions there are also some serious ongoing bibliographic projects. One of the most interesting one is Robert B Schmunk's alternate history listing. This is intended to become a comprehensive listing of all alternate history short stories, novels and essays. This is a very large undertaking, and would be an enormous task for one man, but suggestions for inclusions come from all over the net, are peer-reviewed and then added to the list. If you are interested in alternate history as a theme, you would really like to see this list. As the Internet is multinational, this listing is now becoming a multilingual task. The aim is to list all works ever created in this category, in any language.

As well as information about books and authors, you'll be able to find listings of conventions all over the world, complete editions of Ansible, book reviews and listings of what's new this week in American bookshops. By using other tools for file transfer and by looking in the right places, there are archives of the complete run of Ansible (volunteers still wanted for typing in some of the early issues), the venerable SF-lovers digest mailing list, lists of fannish e-mail addresses, and lime jello recipes. There are also on-line fanzines and newszines, often available by subscription.

Some conventions use the Net to advertise themselves, and to inform attendees. Currently Conadian has a strong presence, with detailed plans of what's going to happen come the Worldcon. Soon Intersection, Confabulation and Evolution will be offering similar services. Evolution and Intersection will be using the World Wide Web, a global hypertext system, whilst Confabulation are setting up an electronic mailing list.

The Net is also a very good place to keep in touch with friends and work together on projects. This cooperative effort between Simon Bisson and Pat McMurray was written using e-mail. Pat wrote the first draft and notes and then e-mailed it to Simon.

He read it, changed a few bits, added some text, cleaned it up and then sent it back to Pat. We then bounced it back and forth a little, before finally e-mailing it to Caroline Mullan. We have heared reports that the Internet is becoming commonly used for such cooperative writing.

Similar techniques can be used if you happen to find yourself running a convention, by running an e-mail discussion list everyone involveved can be kept informed, and talking, between committee meetings. In emergencies this is can be a very good way of informing people and for finding a cooperative solution.

Of course, there is not a lot you can do via this medium that couldn't be done using post or phones. It's obviously quicker than the post, but it also has a big advantage over phones, in that you can deal with it in your own time. You'll appreciate that if you work odd hours, if you tend to be busy most of the time, if people always ring you during dinner (hands up anyone who's let their dinned get cold while they responded to an interesting phone call).

The Net, in whatever form you join, CompuServe, CIX, Demon... can provide a very powerful communications tool, though its results can sometimes at first seem bewildering and difficult to understand. After a while, though, as you learn to use the many tools that allow you to navigate the Net, the mists clear, and the messages come through loud and clear.

Come on in and join the netsurfers, it's a real storm: but we'll help you not to drown while you learn to swim, just like others helped us.

Simon Bisson: simon@fehen.demon.co.uk

Pat McMurray: pat@cooky.demon.co.uk