License to Slum, pt. 4

Sunday, 31 August 2008 — 11:42pm | Film, Literature, Star Wars, Television, Tie-ins and fanfic

This is the fourth part of “License to Slum: The Novel of the Movie of the Game”, a pentapartite polemic about media tie-in fiction in which I investigate whether my prejudice against them is just a prejudice. I recommend that you start at the beginning. For the purposes of this episode, I also recommend an earlier post of mine on the subject of fan fiction, “The hack-and-slash fiction property market” (12 December 2007).

In this instalment, I inquire into the the extent to which the sharing of a mythopoeic universe constrains the freedom of the individual author, viz. whether there is a place for genuine innovation between the oversaturation of “canons” and the anarchic multiverse of fanfic.

13.

When Red Dwarf creators Doug Naylor and Rob Grant parted ways circa 1994, they independently sat down to write their own solo spin-off novels—The Last Human and Backwards, respectively. Red Dwarf spin-offs were nothing new: the gestalt entity formerly known as Grant Naylor had already penned two (Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life), both of which contained a number of ideas that fed back into the popular television show. What is remarkable about The Last Human and Backwards, which were not so much mutually contradictory as they were flat-out obstinate about the narrative non-being of the other, is how they revealed two opposed yet complementary interpretations of what Red Dwarf was all about, and what it very well could have been given the unlimited sort of budget that never visits British sitcoms that die too young.

Unlike the television show in its finest moments, neither book is the paragon of sci-fi comedy: for those risible pleasures, the obvious champion from the British Isles is the one and only tie-in novel to have seized control of its brand identity in the mainstream consciousness, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which one anonymous critic once described as—

Mostly harmless.

Regardless of their quality, the post-mitotic tomes of Grant Naylor provide an ample demonstration of the function that the tie-in novel should ideally serve. The motivation to collect them at all is no different from that which drives us to seek out making-of documentaries and sketches of lost episodes on the DVDs: the insight we get into the competing visions of Grant and Naylor is, by extension, a retroactive insight into the television show itself.

In the case of Red Dwarf, we are dealing with a unique situation in that the authors were the creators of the property and not third-party writers-for-hire, as is the case with most tie-in novels. Nevertheless, what I wanted to draw attention to was the interest that can bloom from the healthy interpretive debate that can exist between derived works, once we have already conceded their status as a subsidiary commercial property.

Ergo, I like much of what Raymond Benson says about James Bond:

Fans have to realize that every author’s oeuvre of Bond novels should be taken as a whole and separate from other authors’—with the exception that Fleming’s original books are the groundwork, the basis for the Universe. That original Universe is free to plunder, and that includes characters Fleming created. A writer of STAR TREK or STAR WARS would do the same thing. I didn’t look at my Bond books as a continuation of Gardner’s series. I started my own series. I was given carte blanche to use or ignore anything in Colonel Sun, the Gardner books, and even the John Pearson fictional biography. Anything I changed from earlier books was certainly not done out of spite! I wanted my Bond to use the old Walther PPK because I felt that was Bond’s gun, just as the Batmobile is Batman’s car!

As I see it, the best environment for the production of tie-in novels is one in which the individual author has ample room for experimentation. In similar environments like comic books and television, where writers work under the ordinance of a committee that guards the brand, the issues and episodes that we remember are the frame-breakers, the ones that turn our expectations upside down and waste no time with the pattern of the merely conventional. They succeed because they surpass the regular limitations of the brand, as “The City on the Edge of Forever” did for Star Trek.

The more individual the vision, the better. It is no coincidence that the most revered title in franchise superhero comics is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns—not only an impressive accomplishment in formal terms and essential reading for anyone interested in the communicative possibilities of what Will Eisner termed “sequential art”, but also a standalone masterwork of sober meditation on the moral implications of Batman’s Gotham, from the public’s relationship to vigilantism to the consequent anxieties that come from government-sanctioned supermen.

A tie-in series of narrative continuations has a duty to foster a conversation on its own history. That is best achieved when authors have the democratic privilege, the franchise, to advocate their own ideological thesis of what their employer’s brand means and should mean; when they are free to discard the ideas of colleagues with whom they disagree; when they are given sandboxes to themselves, and need not tiptoe around the jealously guarded castles of their predecessors.

14.

I now turn my attention to one particular belief:

“The breadth of a shared, consistent canon makes a world feel immense and real.”

In the preamble to this series, I mentioned Wired Magazine’s article on Leland Chee, the Star Wars Expanded Universe’s continuity man. It is a vivid and entertaining portrait of an occupation that singlehandedly captures the twenty-first century zeitgeist envisioned by the selfsame magazine that canonized Marshall McLuhan as its patron saint.

It is also, at times, a cause for consternation:

Lucasfilm has to plan ahead and think long term. “We don’t reboot. We don’t start from scratch,” Chee says. “When Chewbacca died, he died.” (Poor Chewie yowled his last yowl in 25 ABY, when he was stuck on the planet Sernpidal as it collided with its moon, Dobido, in the novel Vector Prime, the first book in the New Jedi Order series. His death is now canon.)

“The thing about Star Wars is that there’s one universe,” Chee says. “Everyone wants to know stuff, like, where did Mace Windu get that purple lightsaber? We want to establish that there’s one and only one answer.”

This is not strictly true: canonicity is actually quite the tangle. Recalling the meta-genies of Gödel, Escher, Bach, Chee’s official position—corroborated by the historical evidence of change prior to the completion of the films—is that the canon exists in a many-tiered hierarchy (five levels high, at present) in which the core of the franchise is free to conduct its business with abandon, while the books exist in their own contiguous alternate-universe bubble (occasionally inseminating the core with a name, a character, or two), with nondeterministic entities like the video games in an outlying orbit. Whenever the films did something new, the backstory in the tie-in products had to revise itself to fit. It recalls the fanciful parable of the square peg and the round hole.

This is as it should be. As I have alluded to before, my hostility to the Expanded Universe during the production of the prequels was motivated by an insistence that the EU did not in any way constrain the imaginations of the film’s production team (true); that the marginal existence of the EU should not curtail free speculation on things it already claimed to “explain”; and that at any rate, anything beyond the most trivial influence from the EU was undesirable anyhow, as the tie-in books fundamentally promoted a specific ideology of what Star Wars was about that diluted a treasured brand of great dignity, and would prove more detrimental to the saga than midichlorians any day of the week.

All the same, what concerns me is what Chee identifies as the secret to the EU’s success—the desire of many fans to know more, and to have hard, cold answers fed to them on a plate. It serves as an unwelcome reminder of the lust for absolute, authoritative truth that drives the herd not only into the clutches of religious dogma, but also to a misapprehension (and consequently, mistrust) of scientific and rational inquiry as being about “facts” and “proofs”—the very same misapprehension that leads so many to dismiss science as just another religion, or just another instrument of Western hegemony. In collaborative mythopoeia, as in science, the ideal course of development occurs as a series of ever-better refinements and paradigm shifts that discards as often as it adds.

15.

It is healthy to want to know more. It is not healthy to expect and accept an absolute answer when it comes to something as transparently imaginary as fiction: to do so is to consent to the dulling of the critical and interpretive faculties.

As a reader, it would be the height of the intentional fallacy to blindly accept any statement of authority, even an agreeable one, as the final determinant of what to include or exclude when it comes to one’s personal scope of diegetic truth.

Nor is it desirable, even from the pragmatic standpoint of what Lucas Licensing should do to optimize the quality of its tie-in books, that the authors hired by Lucas Licensing are bound to each other’s narrative grotesqueries. With very few exceptions, they share the same overcrowded sandbox, the same beat-up, faded colouring book: there is little room for genuine exploration when so much territory has already been colonized by stories that did so much to reduce the majesty of cinema’s first wholly original heroic cycle to an overexploited puddle of apostrophe-riddled cliché.

There ought to be debate. There ought to be some risks. There ought to be authors who are given some degree of license to defy the tie-in continuity from within. The nine-volume story arcs can still exist and appeal to the same individuals they always have, if there is any room left for them to expand; but they should relinquish their monopolies, their exclusive drilling rights in their patch of the timeline. At the risk of chanting the all-too-familiar motto of capitalism, let quality soar on the wings of competition.

16.

But if it is a collapse of monolithic continuity that I want, why not tread in the even slushier marsh of fan fiction? Perhaps there, I’ll find that defiant, triumphant, high-literary Star Wars novel I insist cannot exist—say, a multigenerational family saga of the Russian disposition that crescendoes to a courtroom finale where Luke and Leia are tried for incest? (“Mr Tam, step away from the Nabokov and place your hands on your head.”)

  • Whatever we think of tie-in fiction, it is vetted by publishers. The bar is low because demand is high. But as is the case everywhere else, agents and editors read the sloppier manuscripts so I don’t have to.
  • Tie-in books are copyedited, i.e. readable in the most rudimentary, technical sense. By printing them, the publishers promise me this much. By stocking them, the retailers promise me this much.
  • I may pose as a staunch advocate of fiction that challenges the conventions of the source text; however, I hear that for reasons completely unbeknownst to me (and honestly, I don’t want to know), the 90% bracket of fanfic writers that Sturgeon’s Law predicts has an unusual hankering to see Harry Potter get it on with all the boys. That is not what I had in mind.
  • Fanfic overwhelmingly plays ball with tie-ins like the Expanded Universe. That defeats the whole point.

On principle, the frontier anarchy of fanfic should provide the ideal space for innovation that monolithic canons do not; no doubt fanfic writers have already seized on this observation, and made their fair share of attempts at genuine novelty. Unfortunately, like the vast majority of self-publication, fanfic is a country where the filter is set to off. I am a busy reader, and if I can’t even be bothered with tie-ins, I can safely say that I don’t have the patience to mine fanfic for nuggets of gold.

Is tie-in fiction just glorified fanfic? No, by the simple distinction that it’s not self-published. That is not to say that tie-in writers should feel comfortable in their smug sense of superiority over the unpublished (that means you, Lee Goldberg). Any criticism of fanfic on the basis of originality extends to tie-ins as well; that is why it is easy to perceive them as two sides of the same coin, one legal tender, one not. And in the case of a franchise like Star Wars, I speculate that there is a massive chasm of unfulfilled demand for derived fiction that rejects the established excesses of the EU, uses the films as its launching pad, and bears the stamp of a reputable publisher. As long as that market remains unexplored, that territory is fan fiction’s to keep.

To clarify, I think we can also agree that the whole point of licensing tie-ins in the first place is to capitalize on a core-product canon that it treats as inviolable. In the case of Star Wars, that should be the films, though the majority of fanfic voluntarily accedes to the EU for its shared knowledge base.

Remember: what I am advocating is not the radical disassembly of the core product itself, but the mutual competition between one tie-in writer and another, much like what happens with Bond. I’ll take my canons shaken, not stirred.

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