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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Reader's Rights: The Idea Preservation Imperative

I believe in the power of ideas. In fact, I would actually go even further than that: I believe in the preeminence of ideas. They aren't quite as important as human life and comfort (although there are some exceptions) but beyond that, creative thoughts are incredible gifts.

I've already talked about the act of finding value, especially as a creator and a critic, in even the most unlikely of places. And, what's more, I've written a couple fan fiction pieces that attempt to put into practice my prattling: one based upon Twilight, the other based upon "Manos" The Hands of Fate.

This book definitely exists. Really.
It should be obvious from this, I think, that I hold fanfiction in a particularly high regard; on the same level, in fact, that I hold more traditional forms of critical analysis. Both occupy the same space in culture when it comes to interacting with ideas. They use similar techniques of analysis, similar methods of picking things apart, often act as either homages to good works or dismantlings of bad ones. The fact that they engage the reader in different ways does not, ultimately, make them different processes. It's just that fanfiction ends up creating its own complete text at the end that someone else can analyze, whereas criticism just holds a mirror to the original. In a way, fanfiction might be considered more productive, in the end, than criticism because of the way it produces something new that can be built upon in the end.

You can write a fanfic of a fanfic, but you can't write a fanfic of a critical essay.


Well, alright, maybe Godel Escher Bach counts as a fanfic of a critical essay. Ah.

Anyway, the point is, these types of texts are important because they uncover and preserve good ideas. But unless you've got a narrow exception like Godel Escher Bach or the notes to The Waste Land or an Umberto Eco essay, criticism doesn't do the one thing that fanfiction can, even though it's using largely the same processes.

It doesn't take that golden, glowing kernel of an idea and nurture it into something new.

And that's a power that we have an imperative to put into use when the original author of an idea can't put that idea into use.

See, sometimes, for whatever reason, a creator cannot or will not explore one of their ideas to its fullest extent. This doesn't even mean that something has fallen through the cracks, necessarily. There's nothing in Scorsese's recent film Hugo that strikes me as conspicuously omitted--it's a tight film, as my collaborator Leslie the Sleepless Film Student would say. But there are still ideas there that could be explored from another angle. The nature of the Great War could certainly be explored further, and the trauma driving the Stationmaster (it seemed clear to me that he was shellshocked, no?). This is an area where fanfiction can serve perhaps more effectively than criticism, because it allows the viewer to not just analyze the character's psychology but to add to it and imagine, in more detail, just what his history and experiences are made of.

So, this is an area where fanfiction can fill in some gaps. It's not exactly what I would call an example of the sort of moral imperative I'm talking about, though.

Something like writing a "Manos" The Hands of Fate fanfiction is.

What makes the difference is that what good ideas there are in "Manos" are in danger of being lost. The film itself is already in rather poor condition, and I doubt anyone has watched it recently without the hilarious commentary of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew. If there are any creepy moments at all in "Manos"--and I assert that there most certainly are--they are in danger of vanishing, and what we might learn from the film could be lost.

This is where the Reader's Right of Fanfiction kicks in. We've got an idea on the verge of vanishing into the cultural haze, a certainty that the creators of the film (if any are still alive) will never revisit the film's ideas, and a platform--The Internet--where fans can share and explore their takes on the film. In that situation, readers have an ethical right to take everything in the film and run with it, copyright be damned.

The Idea is preeminent above all else.

But, alright, "Manos," though I love it so, isn't the kind of sparkling gem that's going to convince a lot of people, I suspect. So, let me use an example that has a few more fans, and is a bit closer to my heart, though it's still not exactly what you might call an elite masterpiece of artistry.

I'm talking about the storyline for the game Magic: The Gathering.

For the uninitiated, it might surprise you to know that Magic has a pretty intricate backstory--one I've been following for quite a while now. The idea is that there are countless worlds, each unique and magical, that make up the Multiverse known as Dominia. These worlds are closed off from one another... unless you are a Planeswalker, a being capable of stepping through the void between worlds, a being capable of exploring the Multiverse in all its wonder.

The interactions of these Planeswalkers, the normal beings that inhabit the planes, supernatural entities, and the core mechanics of the Five Colors of Magic knit together to create a  complex, fascinating fabric of a narrative. And certainly, many of the individual threads are broken in one way or another, what with plot holes, dumb storylines, bad writing or editing, and so on, but generally the storyline is a compelling thing for one reason. To borrow the words of my good friend Jon of Everyday Abnormal:
"I've followed from the beginning. Somewhere, somehow (probably from Richard Garfield sitting in on one too many Planescape sessions), WotC stumbled onto an amazing, unique fantasy world... one that was all fantasy worlds. It was a setting that offered up nearly limitless storytelling possibilities. There were ups and downs, but there were amazing concepts and wonderful stories told within it."
Yep, that about sums it up. It was a world that was all worlds. The potential there is astounding.

Or, it was.

Until the novel line got cancelled a few months ago.


The game will go on, of course, like my heart (ahem), but there doesn't seem to be much hope of us getting the kind of detailed narratives that held the storyline together in the past. I could be wrong, of course, but as of now, the actual long form stories--and even short stories, according to the Creative Director--are things of the past.

Now, are you starting to see why I think this idea of the reader's rights and duties to preserve an idea is so strikingly important?

A little over a year and a half ago, I helped to kickstart a fan project known as the Expanded Multiverse. The idea was to take the spaces in Magic's narrative that couldn't be feasibly filled by the creative team, and fill them in ourselves. The lofty goal was to create a secondary fan-generated canon that was cohesive, well written, and in-line with the established world and stories. A few days ago, when we first got the news that the novels were effectively as over as The Internet (although we didn't hear the news from Prince this time...) I concluded that the Expanded Multiverse was done for as well.

And then, as I got to thinking, and as I read some of the other responses from people on the forums, I realized that the exact opposite is the case: the Expanded Multiverse is more important than ever. The cards aren't going away, the settings aren't going away, the game will continue to explore at least an outline of a plot each time new cards are released... so, we effectively have all the tools we need to build a storyline ourselves.

Now, of course, it's important to recognize what this does NOT mean. It doesn't mean a reader is entitled to mooching off a creator's money. JK Rowling has apparently said that fanfiction is acceptable to her as long as no one charges for it, and that seems to me an ethical model. After all, what I'm advocating here is the primacy of ideas, and limiting access to those ideas by slapping a price tag on seems rather counterproductive, even without considering that you are kinda ripping off someone else's stuff. That ethic, of course, carries over to my own work: I take the Creative Commons license on this site very seriously.

So, I would never suggest that those of us involved with the Expanded Multiverse should get paid (unless Wizards of the Coast decided to throw some money our way, which, hey, I'm not going to say no to, necessarily). But we are still doing an important thing: we're ensuring that the bright kernel of an idea, all the bright fragments of thought that make the storyline so powerful, don't go to waste simply because the company can't economically justify printing books that only a handful of people read.

It's also not a condemnation of creators. As I mentioned with Hugo, there's nothing in this ethic that implies a failure on a creator's part, simply a lack of a particular path chosen. Sometimes that is certainly the result of lack of skill, but the imperative to explore otherwise lost details is not an insult in and of itself. (And I really wish authors would quit taking it that way.) If anything, it's a gesture of respect to someone that created an idea worth exploring.

So, this is, perhaps, a manifesto of sorts for one of the core reader's rights. There are others that I've got bouncing around my head, but this should suffice for now. I need to stop talking and let you get to work.

After all, there are so many ideas out there waiting to be explored; get out there and explore them!

If you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave me some kind words in the comments below.


  1. Hear hear!

    I've been thinking more and more lately that the era of 'canon stories' is over with Magic (not the least of which because the latest fiction was so filled with contradictions). Now considering I'm the guy who has an outline for the 'proper' Quest for Karn novel (all it needs is me to have time to write it!), I realized that by the time I do have time to rewrite the Quest for Karn, the Innistrad story will be finished, so this summer I'm going to start with writing the Innistrad Novel and then move on to the Quest for Karn if possible.

    All power to the Expanded Multiverse! I almost feel like we need a more visible place for it. I wish we could get more contributors!

  2. I think it would be interesting to explore the thing in the beginning (critical essays and fanfiction are the same thing) a bit more in the future.

    I agree that fanfiction is something that (when done right) shines a new light on certain aspects of a work, which is why I like The Methods of Rationality so much.

    Also, how would you respond the creators who don't like the idea of fanfiction, like Robin Hobb?

  3. Hi Keeper,

    Thanks for writing this, I've been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately and feel the need to kind of splurge my thoughts on them. This is probably repackaging a lot of what you've said above, but please bear with me.

    I think, between this, the IP debate on the New Magic Books Wizards thread (particularly LauraR's comments on fanfiction) and my own craving for a MtG roleplaying game (an almost-completed pet project), I've had a mild epiphany.

    What makes fantasy/sci-fi tick, moreso than any other fiction genre, is the idea of universe creation. The books feel different to any other because you're doing more than reading about unique characters, you're reading about unique places, interactions, concepts and, to an extent, themes. A reader gets introduced to these and wants to explore them, so they write fanfic. Hence LauraR's comment about fanfiction not really being prevalent in other genres; they're not so rampant because in order to explore the promise of the setting of (say) Jane Eyre, you don't need to write a "derivative" work, you just write a work set in the same social mileu, which doesn't have the same IP connotations. Although quite who would be more upset about the Pride and Prejudice/Star Trek fanfic, I don't know (it's been done, and it is terrifying to behold). It's this aspect of playing with the ideas that make fanfiction proliferate in scifi/fantasy, and it's why they will always do so. You want to buy into the pre-existing universe because it's rich and detailed and you want to explore it.

    Although in the same breath, things like the Expanded Multiverse won't have the same allure, because they don't hold the same authority. You may want to explore what else the Mirari saw on Dominaria, but less people are likely to engage with it because it doesn't issue forth from the authoritative source that is Wizards publishing house. This diminishes fanfiction somewhat, as it'll always mean far more to the creator than to anyone who reads it. I'm sure the same is true for most published works too, but the gap isn't so observable as there are many people who do engage deeply with published work, far more than tend to with fanfiction.

    It's because of this lack of gravitas that has meant I haven't wanted to get too involved with the Expanded Multiverse. I would love to contribute and read the new ideas, but because they won't have the same impact and take up as the Weatherlight or Mirari Sagas, I'm going to feel less enthused about them, unless they are fantastic pieces of writing (which the Continued Interrogation piece was, much kudos).

    People will have ideas, but not all ideas are created equal. This has an impact on them.

    1. Yeah. I don't have a lot to say other than... yeah, really insightful. I think you're right on all points. I will say, though, that there might be ways that we can make things more authoritative: a nicer publishing format, the creation of stories that do tie into the main canon (for stuff like the rise of Sedris, the Mirage War, Innistrad, the Planeswalker War, and on and on), sequels to stuff like The Interrogation... stuff like that gives the stories a bit more weight. It's definitely an uphill battle, though, and I understand your reluctance to get involved in something that will never have the same authority as Canon.

      Thanks though for your kind words about my Interrogation sequel. I was pretty happy with it and I'm glad someone else got enjoyment out of it. :)


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