Canonicity 3: The Quickening

We continue our inquiry as to whether fanfic can be canon by reasoning that the question turns on the expectations demanded of reader, reasoning that reader expectations fall into natural groups called genres and subgenres.

The proposal here is that the same fashion of reader expectations that establish genres and subgenres is what establishes canon.

We have also said that reader expectations establish the basic outline of the unwritten covenant between muse, writer, and reader.

Each reader’s expectations, he best knows for himself. So what are the expectations set by the muse?

Those are easily said, because they are the same five elements that appear in every story: character, plot, setting, style, theme; or, in other words, who is in the tale, what does he do and where, how the tale is told, and why.

Many writers say point of view is an element of the tale. More reasonable to list the element of viewpoint, or camera work, or narrative voice, as part of the style, that is, how the tale is told.

Applying this logic to canonicity, I propose the following test: if the theme of the work (which is the worldview and moral character of the original) and the continuity of plot and setting (which form the rules of the world, and its underlying logic) and the emotional continuity of characters as they grow or change (which form the make-believe personalities of the make-believe people we have come to know and love or hate) allow for the change between original and the sequel, it is canonical, and if not, then not. It is a threefold test of the spirit, the logic, and the familiarity of the original compared to that of the sequel.

This is, perhaps, too academic a way of saying it. Let us use an example instead.

Let us start with setting. Setting is the time and place of the tale, and, in speculative fiction, the setting includes “worldbuilding” which means, setting also sets the rules of the world, including rules of magic or technology presumed not to obtain in the current worldview of the current reader.

The setting of the movie Highlander is established in the opening voiceover: From the dawn of time we came; moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the Gathering; when the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you… until now. 

The setting, in other words, is a world just like our own, but haunted by secret immortals whose origin and fate is a mystery, battling for a purpose unknown even to themselves, for a prize never quite exactly specified. But one strong implication was that the prize was to become mortal, father children, and return to the life that all Sons of Adam know; a thing, perhaps, we Sons of Adam do not cherish as we ought.

This setting establishes the theme, that is, the philosophy or worldview promoted or implied by the story. All men have a philosophy, even though most could not put their philosophy into words. Likewise, all stories, even the most trite and quickly forgotten potboilers have a theme, even though most stories have shallow themes, addressing no deep insight into the human condition.

In this example, the theme of Highlander is one perfectly in keeping with the best of speculative fiction: the world is stranger than we imagine, perhaps stranger than we can imagine.

And if the prize is what it seems to be, the gift of mortal life and death, the theme is deep indeed: a caution for mortal men not to envy the fruit of the tree of life, which is rightly placed beyond earthly grasp. I suspect this is deeper than the film maker intended, but it is there if one looks for it.

The movie Highlander II: The Quickening is so bad that if the reader has not seen it, no words of mine can convey the true badness, and, if he has have, no words are needed. In that sense, it is like a mystical experience of truly bad film badness.

But is it canon? Let us examine the elements demanded of the muse to see if the sequel satisfies or betrays the demands.

Character: Conner McLeod of Clan MacLeod in no way acts like nor can be Conner MacLeod of Planet Zeist. The first is a naive and loutish hillbilly from medieval Scotland, who is surprised by his own immortality, and mistaken for a devil, and lives his sad life in exile, hunting and being hunted by others of his kind, brooding and yet soft hearted, sorrowing for the transient nature of love and joy. The second is a political exile from an alien planet, like Trotsky living in Mexico, with Stalin sending assassins to kill him.

Setting: one is original urban fantasy modern earth, the other is an ill-conceived (read laughable)  science fiction near-future earth.

Worldbuilding (for worldbuilding is a subset of setting): one presumes a secret race of immortals born among us, and locked in an inexplicable battles for an unnamed prize, and holy ground is sanctuary against them. This has the stature of myth, and, even without explanation, has a certain emotional weight and sense to it. The other proposes the bad science fictional idea of erecting a worldwide opaque shield against all sunlight reaching the earth in order to protect the ozone layer. This has few parallels for absurdity in any science fiction literature, except, perhaps, in parodies. The worldbuilding also fails to explain how the private corporation makes money or levies taxes from this effort, or where or what the other governments are doing, nor why it is that the Scottish swordsman from another planet with no scientific training has the ability to create such a technology.

Plot: the continuity of Conner winning the prize by slaying the Kurgen has to be unmade for the sake of the sequel, and is perhaps forgivable. The continuity of exchanging a mysterious war of all against all between undying swordsmen for a silly plot about the ozone layer, a greedy corporation, and a space tyrant, is not forgivable.

Style: not the same. The lighting, the look, even the scene changes in Highlander were markedly better shot than in the sequel.

Theme: The only theme visible to me in Highlander II is the famous line never spoken by PT Barnum, about a sucker born every minute.

By the time Highlander 3: the Sorcerer was greenlit, not to mention several seasons of a television show and its shortlived spinoff, Highlander 2 was safely by unspoken decree ruled to be out of canon by all and sundry, and the film makers and television show writers never even mentioned it to dismiss it or explain it away.

Not only was this dumpster fire of a sequel therefore not of the same theme, and starring characters the same in name only, it also is no longer in the plot continuity. The planet Zeist has evaporated in a puff of plot logic.

Now, I propose that no one of these elements, just in an of itself, a proof that a sequel is our should be out of canon. Even undoing the plotlines of the original is not, in isolation, enough just by itself.

For example, The Last Jedi is not canon — the point is too obvious to dwell on — and yet Rise of Skywalker, rather than brazenly ignoring hence excising the intrusive tumor as Highlander 3 was bold enough to do, took the less radical route of trying to undo the effects and paper over the plot holes introduced by its ghastly and unspeakable predecessor, as if to informally, but not openly, rule it out of canon.

Nonetheless, and even though the prequels to Star Wars (which, in hindsight, seem not so bad as once they did, by contrast) did violate various points of continuity, character, style and theme of the original, I would argue that, all but one minor plot point, (cough, cough, midichlorians) they are indeed canonical and must be accepted as such by the unenthusiastic fanbase.

The Star Wars prequels are not non-canonical. What they are, is a trio of mediocre sequels to a great original.

But, again, mediocrity is not, and cannot be, the true test of what is within or without canon, because, if it were, Thuvia, Maid of Mars or Synthetic Men of Mars would be ruled non-canonical for failing to reach the awesome heights of A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars.

A disappointed sequel is not non-canonical. Nor, sadly, is a mere cash-grab, nor one that turns the tale in a new direction.

I propose that the only tales that are unambiguously non-canonical are ones which are what other (not I) call fan-fic, for which I coin the term sue-fic. Such a tale must violate most or all of the five elements of storytelling, and show a level of adulteration or even treason, which would make considering sequel and original to be wedded as man and wife or father and son intellectually challenging, emotionally draining, spiritually deadening and artistically compromised.

Intellectually challenging — A non-canonical story troubles the brain by ignoring established plotpoints or breaking the known rules of the imaginary world.

Emotionally draining — A non-canonical story troubles the heart by having one’s beloved characters reduced to mere stiff marionettes mouthing words and striking poses never would they say nor do.

Spiritually deadening — A non-canonical story darkens the spirit by altering the soul of the imagined world, this is, changing the worldview the story assumes.

Artistically compromised — And, finally a non-canonical story offends artistic integrity by deviating from, or even opposing, the established style.

I dismiss the term “fan-fic” as unfair to writers, including myself, whether paid or unpaid, authorized or unauthorized, who write tales set in the background universes invented by others, or using their characters, style, and theme. By that definition, Shakespeare wrote fanfic from Plutarch’s lives when he penned Julius Caesar, and Virgil was writing a fanfic of Homer.

Forgive me if this sounds boastful, but I have overheard fans of mine saying they prefer my version of the Night Lands to the original. I would never say such a thing of myself.

But I will say it of another: having read both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer, I submit that the crossover novel by Cay Van Ash where Sherlock Holmes faces Fu Manchu does a better job of portraying both these iconic characters than did ever their original inventors, giving them depth and realism in a masterful fashion.

Instead, I will use the term “Mary Sue Fiction” or “sue-fic.” This is a story, specifically, that not only borrows established setting or characters, but which violates the reasonable reader expectations and works such treason to the inspiration of the muse of the original being exploited, that it become not a shared world story, not a sequel, not an homage, not even an honest but shallow ripoff, but something more akin to an invasion, or a coup.

Sue-fic always includes an element of degradation or desecration, since the artistic value of the original, even if it be no more than a humble but good hearted adventure story, becomes adulterated, exploited, used, squeezed like a orange for its juice.

If the name need any explanation, the original ‘Mary Sue’ story was indeed a fan fiction, set in the Star Trek background and peopled with Roddenberry’s characters, but the story was one where the young ensign outperformed and impressed all the established characters in a comic act of vainglory.

The essence of a Mary Sue character is stolen valor: the author never actually shows Mary Sue doing anything worthy of praise, he merely forces cardboard mockeries of established characters stiffly to praise her, or be defeated by her, or fall in love with her, or weep in bathos at her death, in order to achieve the medallion of heroism with actually putting any heroic act on stage.

This is often, if misleadingly, called a self-insert character. The unworthy character being propped up as a hollow idol may indeed and often does represent the writer himself; but there are countless cases of the idol being used to represent some mascot of the affections, or some token of a race or other grievance group he wishes dishonesty to promote and flatter.

I, for one, do not think Legolas the Elf in the films by Peter Jackson were his own idealized daydream version of himself: but the film character, had he been in a role playing game, would have clearly been the “Moderator’s Pet”, that is, the one NPC who can do no wrong and lose no battles. He was a Mary Sue, elf-lad variation.

But in coining this term, I propose that there is more Mary Sue at large in the world of letters than merely Mary Sue the Character.

When an author, paid or unpaid, authorized or unauthorized, seizes the levers of power over the setting, continuity, style and theme of an original work, and turns them toward ends other than what the muse, story logic, and original vision of the theme and characters truly mean, he Sue-fictionalizes them, so to speak, and drenches them in the dreck of Sue.

A plot that bends itself into a pretzel to serve some ulterior purpose of the writer, unrelated to the original (or even hostile to it) is a Sue Plot; the setting if violated for a like purpose becomes a Sue World; and likewise for style and theme.

In the modern day, the three most likely ulterior motives for sue-fic are (1) a poorly executed cash grab (2) personal aggrandizement, or (3) the aggrandizement of one’s personal political views, commonly, and perhaps ubiquitously, a leftist political view.

Perhaps there are examples of someone taking an original and well loved work, and writing a self-insert or propaganda piece of Christian or conservative fiction as a sequel, but they are as rare as hippogriffs. I cannot name one. Perhaps one could argue that Deep Space Nine takes the gentle utopianism of Star Trek into a more tragic hence more conservative worldview.  I have not heard such an argument.

Sue-fic stands to a legitimate sequel as pornography stands to romantic poetry. The erotic emotions meant to be stirred, woken and liberated by romantic poetry are merely there to be exploited and used and abused by pornography. One who says he sees no difference is, as our current political figures might say, “a lying dog-faced pony soldier.”

True, this difference may be hard to parse in to lawyerly terms that clearly fit all cases and cover all exceptions, but we all see and know the difference.

So, while a story can subvert expectations, or go in a new direction and even toy with prior continuity and stay within canon, I submit that more is needed to break canon: namely, to break the rules of the make believe world, break the integrity of the established characters, break continuity with prior plotlines, to break the style and theme, and, in sum, to break faith with the muse, hence to break the heart of the loyal fanbase.

Sue-fic is fiction made to use up rather than use the prior work.

It is meant to exploit rather than employ. It debases the former work, and does not pay homage. It copies surface features and leaves the heart and soul of the work alone. In a word, it steals the pouch, with leaves the coins behind.

The emotional value, the weight and impact, of the prior work is merely assumed to be present, taken for granted, and the sue-fic does nothing to add to nor to justify that value. Rather, the sue-fic drains value.

Sue-fic neither sows nor grows any audience goodwill, but instead attempts to misdirect already existing audience goodwill toward a Mary Sue character or Mary Sue world or plotline akin to the original in name only, like the corpse of a bride being used as a grotesque marionette, pulled by wires awkwardly to altar or to marriage bed, as if expecting the bridegroom’s enthusiastic embrace can be won by a mute, cold, and lifeless imitation of the face and figure of the beloved.

Sue-fic is stolen valor.

Not all such films and stories go broke after going woke, much as we wish they would. There are fans who claim, at least, to enjoy such works. Who and what are they?

This question must wait for our next installment: Canonicity 4: Judgement Day