Monday, September 30, 2013

The Death of Canon pt 2 - Author Intent and Audience reaction

(The "short" piece on Canon and Genre Fiction continues; planning to do some work as well on the history of Genre as well.. but for now on with the show)

I always hear fellow fans say that it's easy to settle Canon arguments, it's all about Author intent after all. But is it? That works fine with a situation with a single Author (although what you do when said author looses it tends to get mumbled responses. See: Star Wars) producing a work of a fixed scope. (Harry Potter is good example of this, or Song of Ice and Fire) But Genre fiction is unique in that it is often "authored" by different people overtime even after the original author has passed away. This is due to format (Television tends to never be produced by a sole creator, Comics often have very long run times so tend to change staff etc) and fandom.

But first lets take a step back, a brief dip into the pool of Art criticism and analysis. The Arts have been dealing with the so called "death of the author" for the best part of the past century; as modern technologies produced methods of "authorship" beyond the lone genius at his or her easel. (In short it's mostly Photography's fault, but the printing press also takes some of the blame as well) This drove evolution of Art theory and in the post modern era things like context and audience started to become considered. In Art theory the Author's intent is only part of the story, the work's context becomes important with the real meaning of a work existing in an intangible place between the work itself and the audience. Divorced of an audience a piece of art becomes just an object, and a normally useless object at that. So a work has no meaning without an audience, and because an Author and an Audience can look at the same work and develop utterly different impressions of the work the sole ability to brand a work with meaning does not rest with the Author. This is not a science, the reading of the work draws upon the emotive and cultural reactions of an audience to the signs and signifiers within the work. (as well as how it is presented, which is why graffiti solicits a different reaction painting hung in a gallery) To keep this brief, consider the most famous work of Art; The Mona Lisa. Much is made of her mysterious smile; now we can assume the model knew what she was smiling about, Leonardo may have as well and it is seen by its modern audience as being part of the work's mystery. The true meaning of that smile is now utterly lost baring some additional discovery, it could just be that the model had an odd smile, it could be related the Illuminati or could be a joke by Leonardo. We don't know, we can't know, so it is up to the audience to project into that space created by the mystery of her smile. In that way the Mona Lisa is collaborative with its audience.

As I mentioned before immunizing Genre fiction from these concepts isolates it from the Arts in a wider context and unfortunately proves the point of those who write it off as a lesser form. Ultimately any work of Genre fiction is collaborative with the audience to some extent, the audience reaction fuels the length of a television run for example or determines how many extra trilogies you get to write. So isn't it fair to expect that any addition to canon be accepted by the audience on some level? Or are we forced to accept AVP when we watch Alien or Aliens? (or Predator for that manner) I'll go back to one of the early examples of Canon, the Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft seems to have been quite anti creating a defined mythos for his works, he repeated names and concepts (arguably undermining his want for a lack of canon) between works but did not intent them to be expanded into a knowable mythology. The concept of the mythos and the relationships between concepts that are now very much pop-culture were created by August Derleth. Derleth not only crafted much of what we think of now as the Mythos; but he kept Lovecraft's works in print and maintained/expanded the literary circle that Lovecraft himself forged. It could be argued that Lovecraft's influence is largely due to Derleth's efforts to bring his works to a wider audience. But that was all against Author intent, in the world of canon borne only out of Author Intent there would be possibly no Cthulhu Mythos, just a group of loosely connected stories written by a single author.

So as you can see it is a sticky mess, and the larger a work gets and the longer it runs the harder it is to standardize canon. But why do we need to? In some cases the Authors themselves draw lines that create a story between works, and these lines can be soft or hard depending on the work. But that is the difference between a series and a canon. A canon stretches between series and envelops them in a bubble. So Babylon 5 is a series, it has very distinct lines drawn between episodes to tell a single story. Crusade is a separate series and exists within the same canon "bubble" as B5, they are lucky to share the same author. So that's easy to envision right? But what about the B5 movies? or Novels? or RPGs? All one bubble? Well that could cause continuity issues, even if you prune out all non-JMS sanctioned stuff, the pilot exists in two versions and what the hell do you do with "the lost tales"...? (Or the Crusade 2nd season scripts that exist? They are Author Intent, but they weren't shot, do they count?)

As we have Genre shows that in some cases have been running for 50+ years it becomes increasingly difficult to parse Author Intent. In fact very few long running stories have ever managed to keep their canon straight, changing authors and times make sure of that. Doctor Who practically manages by resetting the show with each Doctor, while some canon concepts remain the style and pace of the show changes with the lead actor. (and in many cases only a sliver of canon remains, Dalek history for example) I've even seen notable Who fans online argue that the twelve regeneration limit on Time Lords was a non canon concept as it was not in the show originally. (Yes seriously) Again boiled back to original intent, but how can you establish intent on a work that has had dozens of Authors? Many of whom are now passed? You can't so you need other methods of reading and reacting to interactions between works within the same "bubble" of canon.
More on that next time folks...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Doctor Who, Star wars, Star Trek and the death of Canon (Part 1' What the Heck is Canon?)

(This started as a single post idea but looks like it will become a multi-post monster like the Yamato review. As many of you know I am a fan of Genre fiction and have a large degree of interest in the way that Genre, Canon and Aesthetics are used in modern fiction, so this is likely to be the first in a series on the constituent organs of modern genre fiction. Enjoy)
As a sci-fi or fantasy fan we have all heard that dreaded cry "But that's not Canon!" from fellow fans, blow hards on the internet and know it all writers in print (or web) magazines. As we in the west continues on its trend of reinventing or "rebooting" popular (and not so popular) properties these discussions of cannon have become more and more intense and seem to be culminating in the writers of said reboots taking to the internet to abuse the annoying nerds that give them money...

So what is canon? Why do we care? Who started this idea and why is it so important to fans?
Well the term literary canon refers to rules or principles that govern works in the field of art and philosophy. It is a middle English term that derives from Latin and earlier the Greek Kanon and refers to "an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture" according to Webster's and has been expanded to include the authoritative works of any Author or part of a series or group of works. In a very naive way the Bible has a bit in common with modern genre fiction and the idea of canon; after all the early church did eject a whole bunch of oddball fanfic from canon when putting it together. (See the Infancy Gospels ) 
Canon became a concept associated with popular genre writing way back in the early part of the 20th century with the growth of Sherlock Holmes fiction not authored by Conan-Doyle. It has since become applied to any fictional series, most often where there are contributions by multiple authors or sources. The Canon is the series' official history and lore, and was taken very seriously by fans even before the intertubes were in existence; Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series had a cannon issue just after his death with the story"John Carter of Mars" penned by his son and the Cthulhu mythos arguably gained a canon after being supplemented by August Derleth. (The man who coined the phrase in the first place) 
But like many internet obsessions the modern Canon wars have their origins with Star Trek; as a series it only went for three years but it reached an incredibly large audience via syndication. (150 domestic US channels and 60 internationals) Star Trek was able to develop a fan base that was more wide spread than its contemporary genre fiction compatriots. Trek had fanzines from 1967 and its fandom exploded after the cancellation of the series and its journey into syndicated success. Programs like "Doctor Who" and "The man from UNCLE" had cult followings as well, but the cancellation of Trek had unique impacts on the series canon. Unlike its British contemporaries it saw an increase of material not generated by its principle authors; it also had a series return in a different format in the form of the 1970s animated Star Trek series. Trek was seen by many in the 1970s to be a dead franchise as far as Television was concerned; Roddenberry had attempted unsuccessfully to relaunch the series in the 1970s with his Star Trek Phase II project so there was almost no "Canon" material until 1979's Star Trek: The motion picture. Movies however did not settle the nebulous state of Trek Canon (I'm not sure they can, but more on that later) as the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan saw more fan fiction, roleplaying games and novels produced and so by the time Star Trek made its return to television its canon stabilized. (Or did it, again a teaser for later..) 
So what I hear you ask? You need to think of fictional canon a bit like a tree, if we take the Star Trek example the Original series is the tree trunk and its offshoots are branches. Some are very large and strong; Next Gen is an example of this, but each branch germinates more branches as the canon grows. Fan generated canon in the 1980s for example generated its own offshoots (look at the Star Fleet Battles board game as a good example of this)  many of which have nothing to do with the "official" canon, but some of these little chunks of canon get re-grafted higher up the tree at much later dates. (Such as some of the Romulan cultural material from the novelizations) 
Many are fans of the idea of regular pruning of the canon tree, cutting away the weaker branches so only the strong "sanctioned' branches can survive. This is what I like to call the Roman approach to fictional canon; in honor of the Romanisation (ie. writing down) of Christian canon. The content creator or owner has final say in this vision, fan material is fine but it will never be part of canon. In other cases under this model branches are viable until the interfere with the "sanctioned" branches and are then trimmed bansai style to ensure the shape of the whole tree. Alien and its comic book offshoots are an example of this, the Dark Horse comics books were officially sanctioned by the content owner but fell into non-canon status when later films directly contradicted them. (eg by killing Hudson and Newt in Alien 3) Star Wars operates much this way as well, with a layered approach to canon; each more "real" than the last till you get to the current releases of the films themselves. (also problematic in this case because Lucas kept changing them.) 
Again I hear you say; so what? The content creator should have final say over his universe by gum! Yes and no, this idea of the lofty creator handing down canon from the mountain top is desirable because like all desirable ideas it is simple. However such an approach basically immunizes Genre fiction from some of the very basics of art and art criticism and places it in exactly the place that its critics put it. (As popcorn fed trash for the masses) Genre fiction is better than that, and that is what I hope to unravel for you dear reader and explore how and what canon is made up of and why the "Roman" approach does a disservice to us all as fans. Even the less extreme Bansai trimming approach in Star War's case gives us: 
  • Jar Jar Binks is more cannonical than Admiral Thron or Mara Jade
  • Han Shot second, or at least simultaneously with Greedo
  • Boba Fett died like a chump
  • Jango Fett (father of Boba via cloning) also died like a chump
  • Anakin Skywalker built C3PO

(To be continued...)  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Over it

Not much about tomorrow's election on this here blog space you may or may not have noticed. Honestly I think I was over the impending cluster-fuck that will be tomorrow's likely conservative victory for at least twelve months now. (Even if Labor can win, just like last time they will meet screams of being illegitimate etc. Unless that victory is overwhelming) Oz politics fatigue big time for this little black duck. As I've stated before, I'll be voting preferencing Labor as they are the less bad alternative of the major parties. (Plus I vote in one of Labor's safest seats, so things are unlikely to shift on my vote)
Sadly the bill of sales from both sides are faulty; but while Labor is trying to sell us a DVD release of a major film listing the menu and chapter selection as "special features"; the Coalition is selling us an Asylum release in 4:3 pan and scan...

(That's possibly the nerdiest analogy for politics ever)