Are Model Railways a form of Fanfic?

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugDavid Taylor’s Bridport Town

Despite being a long-standing science fiction fan, I have trouble seeing the point of knowing the finer points of Dr Who or Star Trek continuity, let alone that of the endlessly retconned comic-book superhero universes. Such things are the meat and drink of some corners of geekdom, but I find that obscure knowledge of media franchises does nothing for me at all.

After all, when the actual creators don’t give the appearance of caring two hoots about continuity, why on Earth should I care?

On the other hand, historical research for a model railway can be a fascinating subject, and for me that fulfils the interest in obscure minutia. For example I’ve recently seen long and detailed discussions on which Southern Railway Bulleid coaches ended up on the Western Region in the 1960s, and what liveries they were painted in. Someone even found photo of a brake composite painted maroon taken at Bere Alston in Devon, to settle discussions over whether such things existed.

And with trains, what is and isn’t canon is pretty unambiguous, much as some people would probably love to retcon Dr Beeching out of existence.

It struck me that in SF&F terms, railway modelling is a kind of cross between fanfic and cosplay. There’s an element of secondary creation in designing a layout, especially an exhibition-standard one, and there an obvious craft in building it. And operating it in public becomes a form of performance art.

There are plenty of layouts which attempt to reproduce a specific location in miniature, sometimes with compromises due to space; Jim Smith-Wright’s ambitious finescale model of Birmingham New Street is a great example.

But there are plenty of others that evoke a sense of time and place without being based any actual real-world location. There are layouts based on lines proposed during the in the 19th century railway mania but never actually built. And there are those based on an actual route, but with a fictional station, frequently an amalgam of features from several real stations in the chosen area.

To be convincing they have to follow the distinctive architecture and operational practices of whatever railway company they’re based on, feature the rolling stock that ran in that part of the country in whatever time period the layout is set, and of course capture the essence of the landscape through which the railway runs. If you think of it that way, it’s has an awful lot in common with fanfic’s knowledge of setting and characters.

A few examples to illustrate what I mean.

Warley 2013

This layout is a good example of a ficticious station on a real route. The Highland Railway architecture, the wild, barren landscapes and the class 26 locomotives immediately identify it as the Far North lines in Scotland in the 1970s, as surely as Imperial Stormtroopers denote Star Wars.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Similarly, Stoney Lane immediately screams “South London”. Every building on this layout is based on a real south London building, and the layout’s builder has even drunk a pint in each of the layout’s four pubs.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Bridport Town is an excellent example of model of a “might-have-been”. There never were any 2′ gauge railways in Dorset, and this ficticious railway is created out of the whole cloth. Even some of the locomotives are based on drawings of locomotives proposed but never built. But with non-railway structures based on real-life buildings in the area, the whole thing has a ring of authenticity about it.

So, does the fanfic comparison hold any water?

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6 Responses to Are Model Railways a form of Fanfic?

  1. Oh, I think the analogy is spot-on.

    I find myself wanting to extend it. Alt-hist (Beechingfree) is the least of it. What about slash (mix geographically improbable engines and rolling stock for aesthetic reasons), RPF (The Royal Scotsman, Lincoln’s funeral train), genderswap (steam trains in the livery of companies that didn’t exist until diesel, maybe)?

    But seriously, yes. The impulse to play with a known body of knowledge, to find one’s own balance between reproduction, interpretation and fancy, and to share it with other people who will see what you did there and get your little jokes? It’s the same one.

    Great insight!

  2. Arete says:

    (Followed from link from Making Light at http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/)

    The analogy is DEFINITELY holding water to this long-time fanfic reader. I might quibble over whether fanart is a better comparison, but that is truly quibbling.

  3. BSD says:

    It’s a very good comparison. Worth noting is the foundation of significant parts of modern geek culture in the MIT model railroad club, oh so many years ago.

  4. solipsistnation says:

    Yeah, I think it’s a great comparison, but I think that model-making and fanfic come from the same basic desire to understand something you could not have created by creating your own version of it, and in so doing to own some aspect of the subject and make it one’s own. I build model tanks for basically the same reason…

  5. Tim Hall says:

    @Abi,

    I’ve seen models of A4 Pacifics in Virgin Trains livery relatively recently. Diesel locos in liveries that pre-date or post-date their service periods are quite common. Even in 12″ to the foot scale.

    As for Slashfic, do not Google on “Thomas the Tank Engine slash”. Remember rule 34.

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