First Responder Of The Heart (conformer) wrote,
First Responder Of The Heart

Retroactive Continuity Is (Still) Bullshit.

(Mirrored at

On a recent trip to Thrillsville's local used bookshop after a relatively extended interim, I was drawn towards this U.K. printing of Gordon Dickson's Dorsai!

dorsai uk

There's already a copy of Dorsai! in Monkworks' library (the ninth Ace mass market paperback printing from November of 1986) and while I have yet to reach this "keystone of one of science fiction's greatest careers" in the chaotic and interminable queue of books lined up waiting to be read before Your Humble Narrator dies, (or goes to prison, whichever comes first) the oddities and idiosyncrasies of the British edition were enough to compel me to add it, OCD-style, to the stacks. Plus, it was only two dollars.

Dorsai! was first published in 1960; originally titled The Genetic General it was culled from a serialized version that appeared in the seminal sci-fi journal Astounding Science Fiction the year before. It's spawned a half-dozen additional volumes that are collectively known as the Childe Cycle series, although most people just call it the Dorsai series. The rub is that the initial subsequent Dorsai books are actually prequels, with the content taking place before the events of the first book. Therefore, the blurb displayed on the cover of the Sphere edition above, "the third in the Dorsai! trilogy," is technically correct, it just follows the continuity of the story, and not the publishing history.

This kind of marketing-style indexing raises an interesting question, in addition to wondering how non-American reading habits differ when it comes to taking in a serialized story in order. If, for example, one or more of the Harry Potter or Twilight or Wheel Of Time books were prequels, how would a relative newcomer to the series be advised to approach the stories as a whole? Would they benefit more from reading the series in its internal chronological order and getting all the information from square one? Or would it make more sense to replicate the experience of the readers that had come before, and take the books as they were released by the publisher?

When hopping back and forth between the past and the present and mucking about with the more intricate mechanics of storytelling is done on a larger scale, it's often referred to as retroactive continuity. Most commonly associated with the comic book industry's massively unwieldy multiverses, retroactive continuity also shows up in more mainstream venues. One of the more infamous examples is when George Lucas swapped out Sebastian Shaw as Anakin Skywalker in the special edition DVD release of Return Of The Jedi with Hayden Christiansen after completing the Star Wars prequels.

The unspoken law of retroactive continuity basically says that the most current truth is the only true truth, all other history is apocrypha. And while this makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective, especially when attempting to manage the tangled plot threads and multiple personalities of comic book timestreams, or in an effort to maintain the public's interest in an aging franchise such as the expanded universes of Star Wars or Star Trek; but at its core, it's essentially bullshit.

Prequels, in general and in particular, are especially guilty. While the fundamental differences between books and movies is recognized, (with comic books occupying an uncomfortable no-man's land inbetween) both are methods of storytelling, and storytelling often involves backstory, mystery, and unanswered questions. Just as a good plot twist can make or break a film, so can the withholding of crucial information in a story intensify the eventual reveal. At the same time, no story is perfect, no plot is airtight, and even the most masterful of bards can leave behind inconsistencies in their universe. (The best of the best do it on purpose.) Similar to the real universe, storytellers can create complete, self-contained microcosms with clear beginnings, middles, and endings; and the imperfections in their warp and weft can only add to the richness of the universe as a whole. The complete runs of Cowboy Bebop and Firefly (plus Serenity) come to mind.

But a prequel, in its worst incarnation, seeks to fill in those holes, to solve the leftover mysteries, to add backstory and motivation and Mommy and Daddy issues. Like brunch, another useless invention, prequels can knock the center out of a perfectly well-established universe and suck out the sweet security of the unknown. Prequels can take niche objects of desire, coveted by a select few who "get it," and turn them into mass media franchises, retconned to suit the tastes of a lower, more common, denominator of audience. While Star Trek is one of the more visible examples of this, a more pervasive franchise is the one grown from Frank Herbert's Dune novels. Admittedly, when Herbert was alive he eventually forgot himself and stretched the legitimacy of the sequels beyond the original trilogy; but it took the tapping of world-class hack Kevin J. Anderson as captain of the expanded "Duneverse" to broaden appeal through innumerable prequels, while minimizing risk with his stunted, L. Ron Hubbard-style of bland prose.

The argument can be made that retroactive continuity, prequels, and expanded universes in general are the natural extension of stories that grow too large to be contained by a single format or genre or generation. And while the disparate differences between something like the two sets of Star Wars trilogies can create conflicts between generations, in the long run an overarching goal has been met: what started out as a single story for a single generation now encompasses multiple demographics, genres, and strata. What was once niche now belongs to everyone, which is a far better fate than moldering away in a museum as untouchable gospel.

But at the same time, not all mysteries need to be solved. Not every ending needs to be definitive. Not everything needs to be perfect.

Tags: revelations, the word
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