The Internet legend
November 2, 2000
By Franklin Harris
"I was there when the shit hit the fan in Vietnam. I was there, man. We ran ops deep into Canada. We were elite, man. We knew how to kill Charlie even when he was disguised as an evil Quebecer. We were that good."
Thus spoke Cronan Thompson, aka Plain and Simple Cronan, aka Nanorc, aka AI at JPL. Never mind that he was born in 1979, too late to kill Charlie even in the Great White North.
I can't remember what it was that set Cronan off. Why was he ranting about running black ops against the Canadians? Never mind. It doesn't matter. That was just Cronan, as far as those of us who knew him were concerned, even though most of us knew him only as electronic blips on the Internet -- a faceless jokester on the other side of our computers.
He died a year ago Wednesday after battling Hodgkin's disease for six months. He was 19 years old.
Cronan, under a variety of nicknames, was a regular in the science-fiction newsgroups on Usenet, the freewheeling part of the Internet where people are at liberty to spout off about anything -- a global, electronic message board and slam book.
Cronan, young and irreverent but capable of finding the profound in the seemingly meaningless, was our gadfly. There was no fight he'd back down from and nothing he wouldn't satirize. And in a medium in which any semiliterate with a modem can play Roger Ebert, he was funny and informed.
Sure, looking back on it, his writings were a bit unpolished. He was young; cut him some slack. What's undeniable is that his observations were as original as they were often manic. He was a genius. On my best days, I'm only half as clever, if that.
"...I once killed a man with a 3.5 inch floppy." -- Cronan Thompson
Cronan wrote many things. He is probably best remembered for his MiSTings, in which he'd give sci-fi TV shows and movies (among other things) the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" treatment, which amounts to taking them apart line by line to make fun of them. (This amusing pastime works really well with reruns of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." You should try it.)
But I always admired Cronan for his "Things I Learned From..." reviews, like his "Things I Learned From 'Starship Troopers'":
4. An asteroid can cross the galaxy in about an hour.
16. Tanks, helicopters and other support craft were eliminated by the military genius of the Terran Federation in favor of using volunteers as cannon fodder.
23. Reloading is not necessary until there is a closeup.
55. It is a good idea to build a fort in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason.
And when he discovered he was dying, he met his fate with his typically bitter humor, going so far as to quote from the novel "Peter Pan": "To die will be an awfully big adventure."
What Cronan might have become is anyone's guess. His scarcely used talent is denied us. On Usenet, he delighted in being the bad guy, in saying anything to anyone. He knew that every hero has to have a villain, and, thankfully, he was more than eager to use his powerful wit for evil.
I often quote comic-book writer Warren Ellis, who once had a character say, "The greatest thing about the English language is that it is so good at expressing hate."
Cronan proved that saying, but always (well, almost) in a paradoxically good-hearted way.
Usenet still has its characters and its wits, but Cronan's presence is missed nevertheless.
One of his friends has created an online tribute to Conan called, coincidentally enough, "Online Tribute to Cronan Thompson." It's at http://www.holyducttape.com/cronan/, and it features an archive of Cronan's best reviews, rants and miscellaneous writings.
He has even been immortalized on film.
A character named Cronan Thompson has a bit part in the premier episode of the new sci-fi series "Andromeda," and the show's producer has said that the tribute is intentional.
Like the real Cronan, the fictional one is a young man of great promise who dies too young.
Cronan, who was black, had a saying for whenever a black character in a TV show or film got killed. "There went the black guy. Sigh," he'd say. It was his brief but pointed commentary on the generally shabby treatment of black characters in science fiction and horror.
You can't help but think that somewhere, on the other side, Cronan is watching "Andromeda" and giving it a sound thrashing.
"There went the black guy," he's saying with a wicked laugh.