Canonicity 5: Revenge of the Muse

We continue our inquiry as to whether sue-fic can be canon by arguing that a sequel is not out of canon merely because it is disappointing or artlessly done, or subverts reader expectations or fails to do so.

All these are red herrings.

We have also proposed that the mere fact that the sequel has fans who admire the work, while persuasive, is not definitive, for at all times, but especially in the modern day, there are those who claim to be fans who, in fact, are vulture fans, that is, those who take no joy in the original work, particularly if it is innocent, or wholesome, or popular, but who take great joy in its destruction, and laugh at the tears of the original fans. Far from proving that the sequel is in canon, the applause of the vultures is a strong indication that the sequel in not in canon.

A tale cannot be in canon when the elements, namely characters, plot, setting, theme or style are untrue to the original. This which mean the candidate for inclusion in the canon may neither desecrate, disenchant, adulterate, nor violate most or all prior established story elements of the canon.

Here is a simple test: take any tale whose canonicity is being debated. Imagine the exact same story with the names and other identifying information removed.

Now suppose the same character appears in original and sequel. Without the name, is this recognizable as the same character? Do any changes seem to be organic (even if surprising) developments of a believable human personality?

Or do these changes merely contradict the character, so that, without the names being the same, one could not tell one was supposed to be the other?

Or suppose part or all of the same plot is in both. Is any knowledge of the plot of the first story necessary for an understanding of the second?

Does the plot development, even if veering into surprising plot twists, follow plot logic? Or do these changes merely open up plot holes, forget continuity, and create gaps and oddities? Without the names being the same, could you tell the one followed in progression from the other?

Likewise, if the name were changed, does the world and setting seem like the same place, even if it is a different corner of the same place?

Likewise, does the theme reflect the same moral atmosphere and represent the same artistic vision, even if now moving into a new area?

In sum, the character or soul of a person, place or thing must seem to be in character even when he is acting out of character.

For example, Santa Claus never gets angry, but if he gets angry in your story, would he get angry in only the way Santa Claus actually would?

For another example, the Shire is a peaceful setting, one it is unimaginable to imagine it invaded by orcs — but if Sharky and his gang did move in, would the description of the scouring of the Shire, when these invaders are driven out, fit the way only hobbits would actually do it?

A story is out of canon when it is out of character. A story is out of canon when it loses its soul.

Let us clarify and qualify a number of possible questions:

First question: Is all fan-written fiction set in another’s world automatically out of canon?

This question is ambiguous because ‘fan-fic’ is an ambiguous term.

I myself have written stories set in the backgrounds invented by Jack Vance, A.E. van Vogt or William Hope Hodgson, or Larry Correia, and was paid handsomely for them. Before I made the sale, they were by definition amateur, that is, unpaid writing: by one definition, then, they were at that time fan-fic. (Whether any were amateurish or not, is for the readers to judge.)

If we define “fan-fic” to mean any shared world story or sequel, authorized or not, written by a new author, we run into the problem of how to define “house” characters shaped over many years by many hands, such as The Shadow, or Nancy Drew, Dracula or Superman.

Defining fan-fic by the legal terms of saying it is any story written not for profit that treat stories still in copyright as if the original were in public domain would indeed satisfy lawyers, but would not describe the essential nature of fan fiction.

A clearer definition would be to say that fan-fiction is fiction that depends on the reader being already familiar with the character, plot, or setting.

Amateurish or lazy fan-fiction — and this is, unfortunately, the great bulk of it — is fiction that does not take the time nor do the work of establishing the personality of the characters, logic of the plot, or special circumstance of the setting.

Usually when people use the phrase “fan-fic” they mean it in this derogatory way.

For example, if I, as a lazy fan-fic writer, thrust Spock the Science Officer onstage, but do not take the time and effort to show him being sardonic, scientifically learned, dispassionate, dignified, yet secretly suffering, and so on, I am merely rested on the laurels earned by other writers who did take the time and effort.

As a lazy fan-fic writer, I am expecting my fans to do the work of entertaining themselves because I am expecting their imaginations to be brought to life by work earlier writers did, to which I do not contribute my effort.

A lazy fan-fic writer, in that case, is using someone else’s fully realized three-dimensional character as a cardboard cut-out character, a mere prop.

On the other hand, even a writer writing his own character in his own world, if he writes a sequel after a long hiatus, can fall into this error.

Fan fiction is particularly prone to this error, however, because it is only written by fans for fans. It is usually amateurish because usually fans are amateurs.

For that particular reason, I call fan-fiction that rests on the laurels of another by its own name, the term “sue-fic” which I have been using throughout.

Next question: How big does a plot hole have to be before it swallows the whole landscape of the imaginary world in a disaster like the foundering of Atlantis?

I submit this is a judgement call. There is a spectrum running between reasonable and unreasonable explanation, and the different genres have slightly different expectations for what might be allowed.

On the one end of the spectrum, having Sherlock Holmes return from his death at Reichenbach Falls is clearly too small a plot hole to be excluded from canon — in no one has seriously ever claimed that Dr. Moriarty and “The Final Solution” are non-canonical.

Indeed, this case is the opposite. It is nearly impossible to find an homage or shared fiction starring Holmes where Moriarty does not appear, and he finds his way into the canon of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and elsewhere.

In “The Empty House” Holmes explains that “I had some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.” And that he deliberately went over the edge and climbed up the cliff beside the path to make it appear as though he, too, had perished.

In a detective story, a man faking his own death as a tactic to lay a trap for Colonel Moran, and the other evil minions of Moriarty yet at large, is legitimate. This explanation is satisfactory to one and all: plot hole filled.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the plot hole of having Emperor Palpatine return from his death, with the sole explanation being “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural” is a development in the plot no one can or should take seriously.

It was a painful necessity forced on the writer because the previous writer in the previous movie killed off the big bad bad guy in an undramatic and nonsensical sense, and the dumpster fire of the flick needed some sort of action, color, pyrotechnics, and vivid motion to daze the eyes of the bored audience, in order to cheat them out of their ticket money, and reviving a fan favorite villain was the only choice.

But it never really happened. There is no Kylo Ren. To find out what really happened during that time period, the real fate of Ben Skywalker, son of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade, one reads the novels and comic books George Lucas authorized.

The debate lies between these two extremes. Was Captain America ever really a Hydra agent? Is Iceman of the X-Men ever really a sexual pervert who hates his parents? Were there ever actually any female Ghostbusters? Was John Conner actually killed by a Terminator even though the timeline in which Skynet came into being was retroactively eliminated from existence? Was there ever any Charlie’s Angels named Sabina, Elena, and Jane?

Typically, comic books and adventure stories allow for a much more wiggle room and Dickensian coincidences when it comes to plot holes. Comedy and horror even more so, just so long as the thing remains funny or scary. Detective stories allow for extraordinary events so long as it is part of a crime case. When it comes to time travel, cause and effect eats its own tail in any case.

Nonetheless, there are some things, even in these generous genres, that audiences recognize as being unforgivable, and holes too broad and deep to ignore or cover with a figleaf.

As a related question: How different does the setting have to be the take the story out of canon, as oppose to merely being a badly written story?

Again, this is a judgment call, but I would venture to say that if the rules of the world have been violated to such a degree that nothing in the previous and original work would make sense had the new rules been applied then, it is out of canon.

An obvious example is the kamikaze scene in THE LAST JEDI where a starship obliterates a fleet by ramming it at lightspeed: retroactively, that makes the idea of trying to shoot a torpedo into the thermal exhaust port of the Death Star an nonsensical act.

Next question: If the sequel is written by the selfsame author who wrote the original, is he not immune from accusations that the sequel is out of canon? He is the creator of his world, and thus, if anyone can, he may intrude whatever element he sees fit into his work, can he not? Is his word not the word of a little god, as far as his world goes — for the world belongs to him?

Again, this depends on whether the new element forces the tale to be untrue to the original.

I would say the original author must be given the most generous possible benefit of the doubt, more than one would give a corporate owner, or a remote heir, just as a practical matter.  He has already proved, in the original, that he can win the reader’s suspension of disbelief, which means he has the reader’s loyalty.

Again, I would say that the corporate owner also should be given the benefit of the doubt, more than a mere interloper who wants to write in the world.

Next question: If a sequel is message fiction, does this mean it is out of canon with the original?

Not necessarily. It depends on whether the message forces the tale to be untrue to the original. There was no message in Highlander 2 but that was clearly and absolutely out of canon.

But the intrusion of message fiction, once it overwhelmed and displaced the story like a cuckoo throwing his nestmates out of the nest and taking their mother’s food for himself, destroyed Dr. Who — but please note that wherever we draw the line, whatever is on the one side of the line is in canon and not yet destroyed by message fiction, and the very next episode is out of canon.

Like any decision by a jury, which episode of Dr. Who was the straw that broke the camel’s back is one where reasonable men can differ. But reasonable men cannot and do not differ on the question of whether Tom Baker, Matt Smith and David Tenant, was still in canon but that the ‘Eternal Child’ episode is out of canon.

So message fiction is not necessarily the death blow to canonicity, but is a disease. Artists play with such things at their peril. As all art, the moral world of the artist is reflected in his work, and some works are meant to tell a parable or fable deliberately to emphasize a moral or send a message. This can be done, if done craftily, without destroying the work.

Alexandr Nevsky directed by Sergei Eisenstein is a perfect example: it is openly and obviously a patriotic Russian propaganda film, but so well done in its every aspect, that the story still is alive and lives for its own sake.

However, a story that is merely propaganda told without any craft is a dead thing, and is not art at all. Any thing that is not art at all cannot, as a matter of logic, be in canon with a work of art. It can only be orthodox or heterodox to a dogma being preached. Sermons are judged by a different standard.

So sequels being used for message fiction do not get the benefit of the doubt: indeed, they must overcome a burden of proof. The presumption is that they are not canon.

The benefit of the doubt it not the final say.

Next question: what about science fiction stories taking place in alternate continuities, such as “What If?” stories in marvel, or the recent Star Trek movies, or the “Dark Knight” miniseries of Alan Moore?

These tales are explicitly out of continuity with their originals, and presented as alternates.

If we say a sequel must break continuity with the original to be out of canon, and the continuity includes, in this case, a multiverse or number of parallel continuities, it is the whole multiverse that would have to be broken in order to put it out of cannon.

Canonically, Evil Spock from the Mirror, Mirror universe has a goatee, and is destined to oppose and perhaps overthrow the evil Empire of which he is a member. A sequel showing him romantically involved with Evil Uhura with her flirtatious ways and bare midriff could be canonical, seeing as Spock and Uhura are an item in other parallel timelines, but not one where he is romantically involved with Evil McCoy.


Antepenultimate question: Does corrupting a previously sane and sound franchise to the filth and shrieking nonsense demanded by the vomiting harpies of political correctness automatically make a work sue-fic? Does that make it out of canon?

Not all sue-fic is PC, but all PC is sue-fic.

Nearly every example of “sue-fic” found on the market in the modern day offered for sale by the legal owners of the franchises involved become sueficified (if I may coin yet another new term) and adulterated, demeaned, disenchanted, and corrupted by the effort to render them politically correct, which is a politically correct term for “incorrect.”

The social justice warrior woke-scolds believe a neurotic, false-to-facts doctrine that rests for its primary appeal on calling ugliness beautiful, calling vice virtue, and calling falsehoods truth.

Merely observe the way any work by a woke-scold deals with issues like masculinity, motherhood, romance, versus how his work deals with sexual perversion, adultery, infanticide.

Art is the use of the beautiful to capture those truths figuratively too deep to be captured literally.

The office of the poet includes the charge of preserving the glory of heroes and the notoriety of villains.

The work of the woke-scold is to praise and glamorize villainy and to dispraise and demean heroism (see Luke Skywalker in LAST JEDI for example, or nearly any military movie made during the Clinton administration.)

Political correctness as a matter of logic is and must be bad art.

Nonetheless, not all woke-scold agitprop is out of canon, nor does a sequel earn its place in canon merely by avoiding woke-scoldery. Every famous example of the corruption of a long-running and well beloved franchise in the modern day, indeed, is due to political correctness and no other cause, but it is not necessarily the case that it must be so.

We have already established that merely poor execution of a sequel is insufficient to pull a work out of canon. See the prequels to the Star Wars trilogy, for example. Introducing political correctness into a story, on the other hand, does necessarily, and as a matter of logic, involve a betrayal of artistic standards. Artists serve truth: propagandists serve the Party.

The Morlocks pretend their propaganda is art. It is not. It is a political ad for an particularly barbaric and vicious brand of resentment-based anti-Western commie collectivist politics.

Imagine the shoe on the other foot.

Dr. Who travels back to 33 AD and finds Jesus and falls at His feet and becomes a born-again Roman Catholic.

Spock lands on a planet and meets Jesus and falls at his feet and becomes a born again Roman Catholic.

Spider-Man meets the demon Mephisto, is rescued by the divine intervention of the Virgin Mary, and she brings him to Jesus and Spidey falls at his feet and becomes a born again Roman Catholic. And then the Pope shows up, and he is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, thrifty, cheerful, brave, clean and reverent. And Dr. Doom’s mother is rescued by Jesus and Doom falls at his feet and becomes a born again Roman Catholic.

Now, speaking personally as a born again Roman Catholic, it is clear that these stories would stink to high heaven. They would be examples of the writers grabbing the story by the ankles and clobbering the reader over the head with it.

Real Catholic stories are like THE DIVINE COMEDY or BRIDESHEAD REVISITED or ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’, or, better yet, the Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien.

Penultimate question: Is using art for propaganda something done only by the Left?

I will not name any names, but I am sure the well-read reader can think of films and books which were so heavy-handed and predictable in their approach to spreading Christian ideas, that they embraced all these flaws, and perhaps blasphemy as well.

No, the muse visits whom she will, just and unjust, high and low, pagan and Christian. Likewise her opposite among the harpy hosts, who visits artists and drains beauty and worth from their works, sucking life from them, and leaving behind a whorish husk of boring propaganda.

Ultimate question: Does not the legal owner of a work have the final say?

Surely (so it could be argued) an artist or poet can mangle and mar his own work however he will, or, by passing legal title to his work to his heirs and assigned, or selling it to a heartless megacorporation, make another the owner of the work, with an unimpeachable right to change, alter, adulterate, desecrate, and burn his creation, and he can curse his fans and readers, and trample their foolish hearts.

Surely (so it could be demanded) the owner is the owner, it is his world, and the rest of you clam up. Disney has the megaphone, and if they say Luke Skywalker is an incompetent yet craven ne’er-do-well, like Gollum, then so he is. Marvel Comics owns Bobby Drake the Iceman, he is their slave, and if he is commanded to become a sexual deviant, and somehow always to have had been one retroactively, then, by the power of the law, so he must be. The father who gives life to his own creation can alter or destroy him at will — so Victor von Frankenstein would say.

Well, yes, for far as the law of copyrights go, this statement is literally true. If human law were the only law that existed, the argument here would end.

But human law is not the ultimate law in the world, for the simple reason that there are worlds beyond this world, and perilous woods of mystery and wonder, and trackless oceans infinite and sacred mountains terrible all hidden in mists and glamour beyond the safe, small hedgerows of the fields we know.

There is more to art than artist, more to poetry than poet, and more to creation than the craftsman: for beyond the creator stands the Creator.

By this higher law, the author is not the owner of his make-believe world in fee simple, not once it comes to live in the hearts of his readership, and not if the muse inspired the work and made it fruitful.

As in real life, the author’s talent and the work given him to do come from heavenly powers higher than his own self-will. A talent in art, or in any thing, is a grant or loan from heaven, of which the artist is not the owner, but the steward.

The aesthetic theory convincing to this writer, when all is said, is one adroitly summed by a reader with the wise yet partisan name of Sophia’s Favorite:

One holds one’s creations in feudal gift from the Muse, or some higher deity. One who betrays the obligations that follow on that gift, forfeits the right to it.