Canonicity 2: The Sequel

The prior column is here, and a footnote to it is here.

We are addressing the question of whether Mary Sue style fanfic  (or, as it will be called hereafter, ‘sue-fic’) can be canon.

In effect, we are asking how far the reader reasonably can be asked to extend his suspension of disbelief. But his requires first answering, for a given story being judged, what genre or subgenre the story is aiming to satisfy.

Before answering that question, it behooves us to say what question is not being answered:

I submit that it is not helpful to ask whether or not the story subverts expectations, because this phrase is deliberately misleading.

Both well set-up and startling plot twists, and crass message fiction smuggled in as finger-wagging lectures belittling the audience, do indeed undermine expectations.

The two are not the same.

The reader is right to expect the unexpected, especially in a story of adventure, mystery or intrigue.

The reader cannot be expected, and, indeed, should not, expect to be cheated, a be given a bad story when he expected a good tale of sound craftsmanship, or fed a lecture when he paid for entertainment.

Having a homing device hidden on the Millennium Falcon during an escape actually orchestrated by the sinister agents of the Empire is a plot twist.

Having the pilot of the Millennium Falcon being a woke-scold pan-sexual robot, is a finger-wagging woke scold lecture, hence a cheat. This is particularly so where such a robot is intruded awkwardly into a galaxy far away where there is no established reason why such a thing could ever be, and it breaks the mood and ruins the theme of the tale.

Both trick the expectations of the reader, but one is true to the established world, and the other is not.

The expectation that Han Solo can make a clean getaway is a diagetic, that is, an in-world expectation. It is an expectation of the mesmerized moviegoer in his seat as he is carried into a mystic time and place of long ago and far away.

The expectation that a movie labeled “a Star Wars Story” will be a Star Wars story and not a woke scold lecture in a non-diagetic, that is, an out-world expectation. It is an expectation of the moviegoer at the box office buying a ticket, hoping he will not be disappointed or cheated of his money.

One is a stage-magic trick, meant to make the audience gasp. The other is a fraud, meant to rob the audience. Rob them of money? Not necessarily. Usually the thing stolen is something immaterial yet precious. More on this later.

Now, one aspect of crafting a good tale of sound craftsmanship is fulfilling the readers’ expectations as to the world, the theme, and the style, that is, the type of story he bought and paid for; and one aspect of sound craftsmanship is providing the unexpected right where the reader least expects it.

A writer is free to begin a story apparently in one genre, and slip it by plot twists and startling revelations  into another, but such a thing is a tightwire act, best attempted by professionals, because the demand on reader expectations in such cases is all the greater. The payoff may be greater also, or the story might be ruined.

Whether or no a sequel subverts expectations is a red herring.  Obviously sue-fic (as I call it) defeats the reasonable expectation the reader had when he bought a sequel promising him the continued adventures of characters he likes, or a setting he knows, or a continuity he has been following, or a theme that touches his soul. If he is expecting Star Trek and you give him Brokeback Mountain, yes, you have subverted his expectations, but you have also cheated him.

Whereas if you kill off Spock in the second sequel and reincarnate him in the third, this also is unexpected, but it is still within the genre and still within  the canon, and Spock is the same character. It all depends on what the writer expects the reader to expect from the writer and his muse.

So what is a reader expected to expect from a writer and his muse?

I offer that this depends on many things, one of which is the conventions, that is, the expectations, of the genre or subgenre the work addresses. (In the rare case of a genre-bending book, the expectations are established by the genre the work seems to address in the opening or introduction to the story).

Ironically, the same reader on the same day if he reads a story he thinks is science fiction but it turns out to be fantasy will have his expectations thwarted.

If the plot twist twists so far that the reader becomes unscrewed from the story, the surprise twist is an ugly surprise, not merely a surprising one. Getting sticks and coal for Christmas is also a surprise, but it overturns and betrays the meaning of the holiday, spreading neither peace nor showing good will toward man.

A skilled writer can make an unexpected surprise a pleasant surprise, perhaps, but it is surprise nonetheless, and one which risks waking the slumbering dragons of doubt, who will roar and yank the reader out of the enchantment of the story.

And if the surprise not merely subverts reader expectations, but triggers a revolt followed by a reign of terror, where all the reader’s expectations of continuity of themes and characters and plot of the original story are guillotined, then let the old flag be burned, because the Kingdom of France is not the Republic of France, nor is the Empire of the Czar the same as the of Soviet Union.

The point here is that the suspension of disbelief is in no way a linear scale, with realistic stories at one side of the scale and unrealistic at the other.

If disbelief were a linear scale, then all the story elements not literally true would be expected to be welcomed by the suspension of disbelief of the reader, regardless of what those elements were or how they were used, provided only that they were equally unlikely or non-literal.

If disbelief were a linear scale, for example, The Men Return by Jack Vance — a story where the earth goes mad when it enters a pocket of timespace where cause and effect laws no longer operate, and rationality no longer obtains — would be harder to believe than, for example, If You Were a Dinosaur My Love by Rachel Swirsky —  a vignette where a woman imagines retaliation against the gin-soaked poolhall thugs who viciously beat her homosexual yet Islamic transsexual sodomite Spaniard betrothed into a coma.

Now, there is nothing innately unrealistic about a barfight. One could read of such events in a newspaper. Nor is anything impossible or counterfactual about a woman by his deathbed indulging psychedelic revenge fantasies. The behavior is, at most, unserious and eccentric.

Dinosaur is unreal only in intrusion of the freakish cult of political correctness into the tale, making the motives of the attackers, namely, bigotry against, not one, but all mascot groups of the far left current in the hour in which the tale was written, into a story element etiolates and renders risible what would otherwise be a powerful emotional impact of the twist ending.

On the other hand, the Jack Vance story is so wild that no serious scientific speculation or sound metaphysical theory could possibly support it. It is a flight of fancy, but one centered around a sound speculative idea, namely, that in a world without reason, the madman is fit to survive and the sane man is not.  And the men in that unreal situation act as men would act.

Likewise, in many a fantasy story peopled with elf-lords and flying dragons, warrior women are routinely portrayed as able to march to battle and fight toe to toe with swordsmen, bowmen, and pikemen, swinging five-pounds swords.

Of course this shatters the suspension of disbelief with anyone who has ever paid the least attention to men and women, and the glorious and celebrated differences between the sexes. At one time, these differences were the topic of nearly all the song and story the human race produced, and the main office of poets was to seduce the fairer sex with flowery words.

Then, when the world went mad, as in the Jack Vance tale mentioned above, to utter the smallest word of this reality became taboo, and Big Brother demanded that we say we Oceania always been at war with Eastasia, and that women had always been as manlike in spirit and body as men.

Now, again, only a few bold voices will point out that human woman can in nowise endure and prevail in the rigors of battle as against healthy men of militia age, whereas the entire world with one voice will rise up, tearing scalp, eyes rolling, spitting blood and screaming with passion that swords were rarely is ever that heavy. (Well, as one wag here recently put it, five pound swords appear more often in history than female swordsmen.)

And the same world will scream that a woman can be a man if she just thinks hard enough …

I do believe Professor Harold Hill first perfected the method of becoming fully trained in any musical instrument at once and without effort, provided you think hard enough, and so naturally the epigones of the good Professor, likewise selling goods far more inimical to society than his, would promote the same system for overcoming the unfair boundaries of reality.

In any case, the unreality of unreal stories is not linear because, if they were, that would defeat the whole point of the game of imagination we call speculative fiction.

The point of that game is to say what would be real if we treated an unrealistic speculation realistically. If pigs could fly, swineherds would train piglets with hood and jesses to return when called.  It is not necessarily to convince readers that flying pigs are feasible.

Well, by the same token, having a soldier girl of the human race able to beat soldier boys in infantry battle, or even to hold her own, absent the equalizer of gunpowder or some other magic power, is equally unrealistic in every genre, whether the air support overhead is biplanes, jet-planes, ornithopters, X-wing craft, or winged dragons of Her Majesty’s Royal Draconic Leviathan Corps.  Just because you have elfs in your world does not mean human women are suddenly built with different structures of bone and muscle, heart and spirit, and so on.

If you want to have Amazons in your world who can pick up and armored knight on a horse and throw him to the ground, or have Supergirl of Krypton able to pick up the Empire State Building and toss it over the horizon, no truehearted genre reader will call the conceit unrealistic, for so long as you treat the characters realistically.

Even if the characters are aliens from other planets or alien dimensions, with physiology and psychology unlike anything earthly, their emotions still must be true to whatever unreal principle the story establishes, and must be consistent from start to end.

Consistency does not mean unchanging. Many a story, including the most potent, concentrate on the character arc of the changes in the character. Coming-of-Age stories have this as their main engine.

But the fool who learns wisdom and the coward who learns courage and the benighted who learns enlightenment all must do so in a way that is consistent with their own character, and likewise for tragic characters.

The tragic flaw that drove the doomed man to greatness must be what encompasses his downfall, or else the expectations, not just of the readers, but of the muses and the traditions, will be thwarted. Achilles cannot die like Alexander, slain by strong drink at a party. He must be struck in his heel, because that is his fatal weak spot. Hamlet cannot die by choking on a fish-bone at supper. He must be slain as he slays the usurper he for so long hesitated to strike.

Let it never be said that any story has to stay within the bounds of genre expectations to be a good story. We are not here discussing artistic merit, only expectations. And also let it never be said that the reader expectations are the only influence on the writer or should be. The muse also has her say, as do the traditions of literature binding generations past to those unborn.

But reader expectations establish the basic outline of the unwritten covenant between muse, writer, and reader.

So the argument is this: each story, either at its outset or thereafter, makes a promise to fulfill an unspoken set of expectations. Some of these expectations are set by the genre the story addresses, some by the opening of the story, some by the shared culture of poet and audience, some by their shared humanity, and, for stories touched by fire, some expectations and demands are set by the muses, some by high heaven.

And, of course, we return to the point by observing that as it is for genres, so, too, it is for sequels and adaptations, reboots and franchises.

The point applies alike to adaptations into other media, or to stories that began as short stories and were later expanded into novels: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card being one easily brought to mind as one example, or well-nigh every short story ever written by A.E. van Vogt as another.

The only difference is one of scale. The expectations of the genre are set by the consensus of other works set in that genre, or, when the genre was young, by the few stories or the one story establishing that genre. Whereas the expectations of a sequel are set by the previous established work.

There is, of course, no academy or final court of appeal for these questions, as nature is for scientific questions, or the Supreme Court is for federal cases. Like debates about good grammar or good manners, these things emerge from a consensus among those most willing to waste their mortal lives investing time and resources to the question.

So the question of what is canonical for any franchise is the same as to ask what is canonical for what is within a given genre or subgenre.

Few would dispute that Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and it thematically mirror opposite Haldeman’s Forever War are Mil SF — these stories, if any, defined the genre.

But the argument that Star Wars is Mil SF rather than Space Opera or Aliens is Mil Sf rather than space thriller or space horror should carry little weight, even if all the major characters in both film are involved in military engagements.

Again, this is not to say that something in the Star Wars setting could not be Mil SF — please read the Galaxy’s Edge series by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach, for example — or for that matter, a space samurai story or a space Western — see the Mandalorian, for example.

It is merely to say that these genre boundaries, while they may shift and blur in individual cases, still maintain a general outline on which the generally truehearted and well-read readership will generally agree.

As for genre, so for franchises and sequels. We can imagine the canon to be something like a genre of one member.

The general way of saying that the sequel has violated or betrayed the unwritten covenant of the original work is to decree it “not canon” whereas those works, even if deviating otherwise from expectations, which work no betrayal, are “in canon.”

This is not a theoretical subject for me. When I took pen in hand to write the authorized sequel to A.E. van Vogt’s seminal by sadly overlooked works World of Null A and its sequel Players of Null-A, no one other than I had to make the decision as to whether to include the events from Null-A Three, the masters’ final work in the series during his life, into the canon, that is, to include them as if they had happened as described in my work Null-A Continuum.

Keep in mind the galling hubris involved here, for which the frivolous gods drunk with nectar would have been within their rights to smite your humble author. I was lifting my frail and bedraggled quill up against the awesome pen of one of the Big Three, the author, who with Asimov and Heinlein, had driven and defined the John W. Campbell’ Jr.’s  Golden Age of Science Fiction. In effect, I was ruling his own sequel out of canon and intruding my own as legitimate.

Hubris or no, I stand by that decision, not only because A.E. van Vogt’s widow allowed it, but because the gods who dwell on sacred mountains who laugh me to scorn are themselves beholden to higher Power in Deep Heaven, who holds his foes in derision.

By that I mean, in this case, that the expectations established by the first two stories in the Null-A series were subverted in a fashion in the third volume in a fashion not in keeping with the earlier stories or the subgenre or the rules of the muses: it was not a satisfying tale told with the master’s usual skill and verve. (He was getting old and full in years by that time, and his powers were fading — albeit what skill remained could and should instruct many a feckless tyro, myself included, in the true art of story telling.)

What are the expectations the muse establishes?

This question awaits our next column: Canonicity 3:  The Quickening.