For a great many years, I was rather enamored with the idea of canon in the pop culture feast that I consumed. This continued well into my 20s, maybe into my 30s, and even now I still feel its needle-stitch tug inside my heart. (For those who don’t know, the idea of “canon” originates with the notion that in a given topic, study or series, there exists a genuine, bona fide list of books that are considered sacred and original. In pop culture fandom, “canon” takes this idea to mean that some stories or ideas are “true” in the context of the internal history of that particular narrative.)
As by now all of you — except that guy who has been living in a nuclear bunker from the 1950s — have figured out that I wrote a Star Wars novel. *clears throat* I have not exactly been quiet about it. And this novel is the first “canon” novel to appear and start to build the bridge between Episode VI (aka Return of the Jedi) and Episode VII (aka The Force Awakens). It builds immediately off the events in VI, while planting seeds for what will eventually become the garden of new material that sprouts in VII. Again, it is to be considered “canon” — it is real and it is true in the context of the narrative story-world (“the galaxy far, far away”).
Ah, but, post-RotJ books already existed, and they were canon-ish. Zahn’s original trilogy (which I adored as a kid and which were held as sacred texts) launched a major mission into the unknown void beyond the borders of the galaxy we knew. Lucas said, “No new trilogy,” and that opened up the doors to dozens upon dozens of new books told in that space. These books were canon more by default than anything else (they were not to my knowledge explicitly made so, and as I understand it, Lucas always considered the books secondary to the visual media around the storyworld), but the books were close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades, as the saying goes. The Expanded Universe was as the name suggested: the galaxy became bigger, richer, wider, weirder.
Now, though, all that has gone. Those books have been re-classified as Legends.
See, Star Wars has always been more Tolkien than Marvel or DC. What I mean is this: the continuity of Star Wars has mostly remained a single, unbroken chain. Tolkien’s narrative storyworld is unified in the same way — whereas with the two major comic book houses, you get a massively fractured narrative. You get hundreds of chains, some broken, others soldered together, others still just random links floating in the void. The storyworlds of Star Wars and Middle-earth are histories beholden to isolated timelines; the storyworlds of DC and Marvel are shattered mirrors representing a variety of alternate dimensions or single-shot universes. Middle-earth has little variance in its historical thrust — no alternate histories. And, up until recently, that was somewhat true of Star Wars, too. (I say “somewhat” because how exactly do you classify the video games? The comics? The “Droids” cartoon? LUMPY AND ITCHY AND LIFE DAY?
That has now changed. Star Wars now has an entire outgrowth of its narrative universe moved to that “alternate timeline” category — the most robust branch of that tree has been suddenly wrenched sideways to make way for a graft from a new, different cultivar. It was bound to happen, of course. Once Episode VII was announced — hell, once it was even a glimmer in anybody’s eye — the historicity or “canon” qualifications of the Expanded Universe had to have felt a tectonic tremor in the Force. It would take back-breaking narrative calisthenics to maintain the Expanded Universe in a trilogy of new films. The age of the actors alone makes that tricky. And the Thrawn trilogy presents clones that do not operate well against the rigors of the prequel events. And of course once you step onto the path of the Expanded Universe, you have to play host to a wild array of story events that may not be easy to keep — Chewbacca’s death, for instance. Or the existence of zombie stormtroopers and space werewolves — er, sorry, “wyrwolves.”
So, the timeline had to snap in half.
Now, you have the galaxy far, far away.
And you have, separate from it, the Legends continuity. (This post, by the way, isn’t about the people who want to bring Legends/EU back. More power to them, and as I’ve noted, I’m sympathetic to those who feel like the storyworld they were following is no longer going to have new material. I have less sympathy for those who take that mission and make it a belligerent, negative one rather than one that is positive and constructive. Be a fountain, not a drain, folks.)
I get questions now about the canonization of things inside Aftermath — people excited or disappointed that X, Y, Z thing is now canon. (Some folks are upset because I canonized hamsters. As in, I mention something inside the book is “hamster-sized,” which now makes hamsters a real thing inside the Star Wars universe. There exists some pushback against Earth things intruding upon the SW universe, though as you’ll see, Earth references like “Falcon,” or “Hell,” or “hot chocolate” have long been a part of the galaxy.) And it’s curious, because I didn’t really think that way as I was writing the book. I mean, yes, I knew that what I was writing would have resonance and would be the first steps toward the larger bridge connecting the trilogies, but that was the 30,000-foot-view. I didn’t think about the nitty-gritty nuance of canonizing things.
(Sidenote: I also canonized “space diapers.” Hey, whatever, you mean to tell me some kooky smugglers don’t use ’em? NASA has garments that are referred to as “space diapers,” I’ll have you know. See? SEE? Boom. Space diapers. *drops mic into pile of space diapers, squish*)
The answers to those last questions are many-faced.
First, I think it’s that we are beholden to viewing large narrative universes the same way we view things like memory, history and religion. We see things as sacred and true — which springs from the original usage of that word “canon.” Some books are canonized. Some are apocryphal. The apocryphal ones do not govern the larger history or the religion. They are somewhat… ancillary. And in our minds, lesser as a result.
Second, as geeky nerdy type folks, we love to become dogmatic about the things we love. It’s in our nature to be protective and knowledgeable — even hyper-knowledgeable — about the things we love. It’s a way to identify with our tribe. (Of course, that dogmatic adherence can also lead to fandom toxicity. Witness the dipshit fuckwhistle tradition of calling out “fake geek girls” or cosplayers, both of whom have a perfect right to engage with their fandoms as deeply, innately or intricately as they so choose.) We like rules. We like rulebooks. We are fans of data and detail.
Third, and connected to the last point, we love the things we love and want to know them through and through. Consider it a kind of rigorous exploration.
Fourth, and also connected to the second point, loving all the rules and the data and the details gives us a deeper reach into the worldbuilding aspect of the universe. It is a touchstone to the experiential — we perhaps more vividly connect with material that is continuous and true.
Fifth, the elegance of simplicity is not to be denied. If Gandalf acts one way here, then to have him act entirely different elsewhere feels abrasive and impossible. Keeping things together in a singular thrust of narrative consequence is, frankly, easier to keep track of in the long run.
And now, here’s why all that is a little bit bullshit.
History, religion and memory are fucked. History is often ret-conned because history is written by humans and humans are notoriously unreliable narrators. Much of our history is witnessed through secondary or tertiary resources — proxies who did not witness the events about which they are writing — and that makes it utterly shitty in terms of its factual dependability. Even primary sources must be viewed through the lens of perspective. As the saying goes, history is written by the
weiners — sorry, winners. We are routinely given sanitized or spun versions of history, and that starts when we’re children. In the US, we’re shown these lovely images of pilgrims sitting down to Thanksgiving with the First People of America, but nobody tells you then about smallpox blankets or the Trail of Tears or how the Pilgrims were concerned about their religious freedom but not so much your religious freedom. Most people still don’t hear about how truly advanced the civilization was of the First People, or who Columbus was an asshole or —
Well, that list goes on and on.
And religion? C’mon. The Bible alone is not really one book but actually several books — you can watch the bone-breaking contortions or hamfisted cherry-pickings necessary to glean hard-and-fast moral life lessons from the Bible. Reading the Bible as a strict interpretation of fact is a pretty good way to miss what’s awesome about the Bible. By devoting yourself to those persnickety details, you lose what it means to be a good person and instead gain what it means to slavishly restrict your moral code to that of people who lived a long, long time ago and in a worldview far, far away. Once again, as children they’re taught the nice stories (“Noah got all the animals to save them from a flood!”) and later learn the whole story (“GOD DROWNED THE WORLD oh except for this Noah guy who has a thing for animals”).
Oh, and don’t get me started on the shame of losing a lot of the apocryphal books. You miss those, you miss Jesus’ teenage years. You also miss him being like, Harry Potter and shit. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a fascinating gnostic text concerned about the spiritual soul and actually talks a bit about some lofty things (“. . . Will matter then be destroyed or not? / The Savior said, All nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots. / For the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its own nature alone”).
Okay, how about memory? Also totally untrustworthy. We are all unreliable narrators.
Even science, which is by its definition devoted to the slavishness of data and detail, is wildly flexible — it has to be for it to work as designed. If science cannot evolve, our understanding of the world will fail to evolve, too.
In our narrative storyworlds — in our big spaceship galaxies and our fantasy kingdoms and our superhero cities and our SEX UNIVERSES WHERE I AM THE SEX KING — if we become too rigorous in our slavish devotion to canon, we lose the chance to tell stories. The more strict and detailed the canon becomes, the more reverence we devote to it. And the more it restricts the future of that narrative. The more it chokes off what can be told. Doors close. Windows slam shut and are boarded over. Options are lost. The more we care about what’s “true” — in a universe that has never been true and whose power lies in its fiction — we start denigrating those things that aren’t. We view alternate timelines as somehow inconsequential. We dismiss fan-fiction as just some wish fulfillment machine instead of what it often is: a way to tell cool new stories in a pre-existing pop culture framework that aren’t beholden to the canonical straitjacket.
The truth is, canon has never even been all that canonical. Even the canon of Tolkien is muddy. Which is true? The work of JRR? What about the added work of his son? What about the video games? The films? LEGO Dimensions posits a little LEGO Gandalf running around with Batman and Marty McFly. Which, by the way, is flarging awesome.
I think as trivia, it’s fine. Canon is cool when you view it as a puzzle to be put together. But when it becomes the point of our investment, when we become religious about its value — we lose something. We forget why stories are great in the first place. We fail to enjoy a story for being a story and instead try to view it as a series of binary data points. YES it exists. NO it doesn’t.
Does it really matter?
That’s not to say those interested in canon are wrong to like it — we like what we like for whatever reasons that please us the most. If you read or watch a thing and your interest is in piecing together the mystery of facts-within-the-fiction, then hey, you do you. But at the same time, if your love of canon gets you into fights online or limits what stories you’ll pick up in the future, it’s worth asking if you hold it in too high an esteem.
Maybe the best way forward is to view canon as a curiosity and not a set of slate tablets etched by God-lightning and brought down from the Holy Mountain. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the peculiarities intrinsic to a world where canon is flexible and uncertain, and where narrative apocrypha is allowed the precious room to stretch and breathe. Perhaps the joy in the broken mirrors of DC and Marvel is that I can have my Batman, you can have yours, and nobody has to arm-wrestle over which one is right, which one is true, which one belongs, which one does not.
* * *
An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.
But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.
Out now from Harper Voyager.