The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

To Make An Apple Pie From Scratch: Expanded Universes 101

In movies, comics, games, tv, and books, Expanded Universes are everywhere. But these huge multi-author, multi-story projects are controlled by huge corporate monopoly holders. Isn't it time we built some universes of our own?

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This is going to be a practical guide to creating an expanded universe. Or, in more detail, this is a guide to organizing a shared world fiction franchise, created in an anti-hierarchical and democratic way, and released under creative commons principles.

That sentence probably gave you a lot to digest, and it gives me a lofty goal to live up to. Let me try and break down the components of the sentence a little, and explain what makes each one worth understanding and undertaking. 

Let's start at the bottom:

"Creative commons principles" broadly covers a host of different ideas about "intellectual property," copyright, and the sharing of ideas. Our culture and legal system assume that artistic or mechanical expressions of ideas are property, like a house, or a printing press. The rights to this "intellectual property" can be bought and sold, and the owners control whether copies may be made, and whether derivative works--programs that use existing code, fanfiction that uses existing characters--can be produced. 

A variety of overlapping movements--the Free and Open Source movement, Creative Commons license users, people who advocate for copyright terms that last less than a century (archive)--instead view art as part of a cultural commons, a shared heritage that we all pull from. Much of our culture already does operate under those principles, and many creators (or, more accurately, businesses that employ creators and often retain the legal rights to all their creations) draw upon the large body of "public domain" art, literature, music, design patterns, machine parts, &c. This is good, but as companies move towards monopoly and push for longer copyright terms, they tend to take from the public domain without giving back. So, the Disney Corporation might base a movie off of the public domain fairy tale "The Snow Queen," employ many artists, composers, animators, programmers, and writers to convert it into a proprietary work, and sell the public this new version of an old story... but no one, not even the artists, composers, animators, programmers, and writers who actually produced the "new" work, can do to Frozen what Frozen does to The Snow Queen!

Critics of these intellectual monopolies describe this as a kind of enclosure, where a public good--the stories and art we create as a society--is taken out of collective hands and converted to a form only one monopoly owner can profit from and exploit. A project built under creative commons principles does the opposite: creators generate new, unique art that they release to the public under a license that allows other people to create derivative works.

This doesn't mean the creators work for free, though. Although the customers retain the rights to do what they want with the art they buy, to remix or adapt it as they want, the creators in the model I'm proposing still produce work as a business. I advocate this strategy because artists still currently need money to buy food and shelter, and having a business is a way of getting money.

Most businesses, though, are hierarchical and anti-democratic. This should sound familiar. Most of us are used to a model where bosses pass down orders to workers (statistically, probably you) who produce whatever the company is selling, be that art, consumer products, or some service. In return they receive a paycheck that's some percent of what the product sold for. The remaining percent of what the product sold for goes, of course, to the boss... and you might find yourself wondering if the percentages of the profits that you and your boss are getting really match up to the percent of the work you and the boss did to make that product.

Under a model of democratic control and anti-hierarchical structure, that's less of a concern, because the "boss" is the group of workers also producing things alongside you. Either through majority votes or through consensus building, the workers collectively decide how to produce things, how to divide up the work, and how to fairly compensate everyone involved. The profits are either divided up completely in compensation, or are used to fund equipment and material purchases for the betterment of the collective.

This empowers workers both to make decisions that further their mental, physical, and financial well being, and empowers individuals by giving them access to a greater pool of resources. Everything from equipment purchases to promotion to affecting the nature of the wider community is easier when there is a larger body of people acting together. If a shady t-shirt company pulls your artwork off Twitter to profit from, even under the current system of intellectual monopoly, you--some random schlub online--don't have a lot of recourse to fight back. With a bunch of other angry workers at your side, though, you might just be able to make enough noise that, even without intellectual monopoly enforcement, you make the public aware that they should be supporting you, not Shady T-Shirts Dot Com. Shady Ts is probably running a sweatshop anyway, where their workers get paid ten cents a day. Fuck those guys!

So, let's put these ideas together. Art and ideas are resources, ones we might like to share for the good of all, rather than hoard like dragons. And we might like to organize our way of capitalizing on that resource democratically, so we all have a say in what we are creating, and pool our resources so we can produce things more easily and efficiently.

It stands to reason, then, that one of the pooled resources would be the worlds we tell stories about.

One way of doing that is through a model called "shared world fiction." This is already a tried and tested model recognizable from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the extensive novels, comics, and games of Star Wars, the different locations and game scenarios of Dungeons and Dragons, and even looser projects like the writers inspired by HP Lovecraft's works to create the expanded lore we call the Cthulhu Mythos. Rather than a single author producing a single narrative, many authors create multiple stories that add up to a collective whole.

While these stories don't have to have continuity with each other, and in fact the collective could just work on one big project or many smaller separate works, this project is about stuff like the examples above: worlds with continuity, that readers and creators alike consider as internally consistent and coherent places. Characters can freely cross over from one author and story to another and have their internal histories remain continuous--all the stories are part of the world's "canon". Producing settings like this is not new; producing settings like this where the creators democratically control the project, and freely invite public participation, is.

Why produce shared world fiction in particular? If you feel that logically jumping from a democratic production model to a shared world storytelling model is a stretch, that's fine and you don't have to sign on just yet! The ups and downs of this creative model are the subject of the rest of this series.

But the core justification in my own heart for making that jump is simply that I, personally, Sam Keeper, love these kinds of worlds. I always have, and while these days I'm way more accepting of other creative models, I probably always will gravitate towards sprawling shared worlds. I love their sense of place, of vastness and complexity constantly spilling beyond the bounds of any single story, the way characters weave in and out of each other's stories, the way history builds up layer by layer, the way each new author introduces their own perspective and aesthetic preoccupation into the project, the way long-running projects become metatextual and critical, analyzing their own history and uncovering new aspects.

Yet, I hate other aspects of shared world fiction, at least the actually existing shared world fiction of large corporate monopoly holders. I hate the suspicion and hostility towards the invested fanbases and their fan works that so often comes from these owners, I hate the way industries like comics and video games have consistently taken the incredible work of artists, writers, and programmers, profited from it, and left those creators penniless, I hate the way investors, CEOs, and marketers hold powerful and arbitrary sway over the creative process, the threat of project cancellation hanging like the Sword of Damocles over the heads of creators and fans alike.

This series of articles attempts a creative imagining on par with the creation of a shared world. It imagines a world where all of the incredible qualities of shared world fiction might exist divorced from copyright strikes, takedown notices, bosses who see art as an investment rather than collective cultural enrichment, and the exploitation of creators on both sides of the increasingly fuzzy fan/professional line.

This will require building a whole universe of new ideas, and to do that we have to begin with basics.

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I want to tell a story. It's the story of why I love shared world fiction, and it's also the story of why we write in shared worlds. You might say this is the story of why we write fanfiction, or the story of why we seek some control over the narratives we encounter, or a bunch of other things. It's going to be an incredibly insufficient story because I'm going to do it in 1500 words or so!

But it doesn't have to be sufficient in itself, which is the point.

That's good, because usually literature isn't. That's a structural reality of storytelling: Wolfgang Iser talks about the gaps in the written word, how the process of reading involves us, the reader, filling in gaps, making predictions, and negotiating contradictions and surprises in a story. This isn't just true of short stories and novels, though. No story in any medium can encompass every corner, rewind the clocks of its internal universe back perfectly to the flash of creation. These stories are always, in that sense, insufficient.

That insufficiency isn't just some absolute experience, either. We come into a text with a particular repertoire, and fill the gaps--or notice the gaps--differently with our different experiences. Sometimes we fill those gaps with reading. Sometimes we must fill them with writing or art.

This is part of the story of why we write fanfiction or shared world fiction. Sometimes a gap in a text is so vast--the gap of a particular experience unexplored, a particular character underdeveloped, a gap of race or class or gender or sexuality un-served in the original--that we fill it actively by positing new additions to the world of the text. Sometimes we create for less radical reasons. We might snatch at an unexplored space in a canon where a sidestory can grow, or burn with desire to put our predictions about a serial work's future down in writing, or lovingly retrace a particular character dynamic across countless alternate universes, or rotate and contemplate an idea from beyond a story through existing archetypes that voice our thoughts.

We might do all these things, and historically, we have.

The story of people writing for/about/in/through what we now call "other people's intellectual property" is old, and big, and not something you can fit in one small essay. Here are some highlights, though.

One case that feels old (but in the whole sweep of history is not really THAT old) is early serial comic strips during the early part of the 20th century. Jared Gardner, in his book Projections, describes how long running narrative strips developed large pubic fandoms that prompted newspaper coverage, wrote huge quantities of letters to comickers, and often felt compelled to get involved in the plot. Some strips, like The Gumps, printed letters from fans and had plot events respond to those letters. If a character was in need, fans might actually send in money or flowers to support them. If a beloved character died, fans would demand a retraction. Even early on, then, fandom sought to enter into dialogue with their media, because the media was both emotionally powerful, and also incomplete, the story never finished as long as the serial went on.

A Great Novel (or even a not so great one) can feel pretty closed, bounded by a beginning and end and complete in itself. A serial narrative feels more open ended, and might invite reflection and response. That's true not just of fans but of authors as well. Ursula K LeGuin employed this process of reflection and adjustment throughout her career. Her sequels to A Wizard of Earthsea respond in various ways to the books that came before--the first two, for example, go from a powerful wizard as the protagonist to a girl living in a dungeon, trying to physically and mentally escape a cult. It turns its premise of power on its head. Her Ekumen science fiction novels all share a very large universe (our own), and take place across a wide sweep of time, as the worlds of the titular Ekumen encounter new planets and bring them into their non-aggression pact. While LeGuin was ambivalent about the coherent continuity of this universe, pointing out the inconsistencies in her own worldbuilding, the shared universe allows her to compare and contrast different cultures, exposing their hidden assumptions as they come into contact with others.

This establishing of baseline ideas that can be explored across different stories makes it possible for the noise-rap trio clipping. to caution the listener on "Air 'Em Out" that "You might wanna pay attention what he sayin'/'Cause the Ekumen ain't everything and these killas ain't playin', ho!" The line, on an album about an escaped slave marooned alone on a slave spaceship struggling to survive, is a little ambiguous. Does it warn that the Ekumen's peaceful model isn't the only force in the universe? Or that the Ekumen has its own blind spots? Either is probably something LeGuin would agree with, but clipping. can respond through their protagonist Cargo #2331 to these earlier texts and talk about the colonial heritage of Science Fiction as a genre. In this way they turn some of the existing assumptions of science fiction on their head.

These interactions, from fans of the Gumps petitioning on behalf of their favorite characters, to LeGuin reconsidering her previous work and expanding the contours and complexities of her settings, to clipping. adding metatextual references to their own science fiction story, to me trying to read and interpret those connections and explain them to you, there is a drive to be in conversation with an open-ended work. A shared world project takes this desire and includes it within the structure of storytelling itself, by creating space for multiple stories by multiple authors to explore all the corners of a setting.

That's a pretty optimistic story!

Let's turn it on its head.

Sometimes a person will create art of another's character and setting because they have to. Contemporary art production features a lot of this. In the fine art world, famous artists frequently have studio staff fabricate large portions of their work, and many sculptures and installation pieces would be impossible without such assistance. Animation in many countries is produced under essentially sweatshop conditions, as the in-between frames necessary for smooth movement are rapidly produced by low paid workers. The end credits of a Marvel or DC superhero movie attest to the army of laborers needed to bring blockbusters into the world. And, if we want to go to the furthest extreme, banana pickers across South America technically labor to produce the Dole fruits that are sold, really, as tie ins to the latest Star Wars film, seriously. Is that an absurd inclusion? Maybe, but if people are going to treat it as part of the brand's magic (archive) I don't see why I shouldn't treat it as an example of derivative art!

The motivations behind these cases are complex. Some people may seek an inroad which will allow them to produce their own work. Others may simply enjoy the process of fabrication--I am one of those people, in fact! For many, many others, they may simply have no other economic choice.

This has long been the story of the comics industry. Oh, don't get me wrong, plenty of comickers produced incredible work for Marvel and DC, as well as Acclaim, EC, Image, Dark Horse, Charleston, and countless other comic publishers big and small. For most of the American industry's history, though, artists had little control over their original artwork, did not own their own characters, were not entitled to royalties from the use of those characters, and had little power to fight the industry for better conditions. Repeatedly, companies stomped on attempts to form comic artist unions. Lawsuits against comic companies, such as Siegel and Shuster's attempt to gain the rights to Superman, have been a mixed success at best, and often ended in failure for artists producing work for hire. The industry improved in the 90s after the widespread Creator Rights Movement pushed for the ownership of original art and of characters, but many older comic creators still struggle to make ends meet, necessitating support charities like the Hero Initiative (archive). Jack Kirby, who famously created many of the Marvel and DC heroes now starring in major motion pictures, infamously advised a new entrant into the industry: "Don't do comics. Comics will break your heart. (archive)"

This, too, is a very old story, one writer Bertold Brecht explored in his poem "Questions From A Worker Who Reads (archive)":

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?


Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ? 

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?

They're good questions, questions that cut to the heart of the earlier bright-eyed account of how people are inspired to contribute their work to someone else's world.

But just because this history holds true in a lot of cases, doesn't make it the only possible story we might tell. There are good reasons--the pleasure of fabrication or of working as part of a team, the desire to respond to existing stories or art, the excitement of taking a setting's premises in a new direction--to participate in a project that originated with someone else. There are practical reasons, too. A larger shared world project might provide useful exposure, or be easier to promote on an attention-competitive web, or be able to pay more through its established funding model, or might lower the cost of equipment and resources if they can be shared between many artists.

The negative stories serve to expand our understanding of the pitfalls of this model, and guide us toward more equitable ways of working. They, just like the positive stories, are insufficient in themselves, only pieces of a much larger and more complicated history of art, culture, economics, politics, and individual personalities.

Is that kind of history best told through an individual novel or film, or might an expanded universe project, focusing upon a setting with its own internal consistency and continuity, with a variety of semi-connected stories that can cover many angles on that history, be better suited?

I'd suggest the latter might better capture the very real way that history is this jumble of different stories, pieces of evidence, proclamations and replies, theses and antitheses. An individual story might focus on one hero, but there's always a world outside of that one person's experiences and exploits. It seems like there are many reasons why we might want to explore those other stories, when presented with a new world. So, why not try to build a model where it's easier, and more equitable, to do that?

It would be impractical, probably impossible, and almost certainly undesirable to write so that you might rewind from such a shared universe's present, hurtling back in time to the beginning with all causes and effects accounted for. Nevertheless, the sense that there IS a coherent universe where countless stories exist has value. It resists the idea that a story where a few great figures, the Great Men of History, shape the world, is sufficient in itself. There is the potential, within shared world fiction, to pull the focus off single cases and talk about systems, the way drought in one place leads to political destabilization in another, the way large groups of people take political action, the way our means of producing art might change over time. These are things worth exploring in the present day.

Carl Sagan once proclaimed that "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." The ingredients in the apple pie might not be pre-mixed, but they are pre-made through the long and winding chain of causality reaching back in time and space. The possibility of collective shared world fiction is that we might shed light on such a creation, and do so in a way that brings us all equitably into the process.

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Thanks for reading this first part of my new series, To Make An Apple Pie From Scratch, a guide to writing expanded universe fiction. Future pieces will explore topics like the unique qualities of the Expanded Universe model, the practical concerns of organizing a democratic creative team, a bunch of case studies of past projects and how they lived and died, and much more. You can read these articles early on Patreon for $1, and when the book is finally finished, edited, and compiled into ebook form, for $5 you'll have your name in the credits as a supporter, and you'll receive the book at least a month before its public release.

You can join the 86 people who supported this article on Patreon today.

I also plan to produce a small supplemental book of two or three settings that might help you construct your own shared world fiction. This material will also be released in small installments over the course of the project, exclusively to the $1+ patrons. Follow the project here on Storming the Ivory Tower, updating Mondays or Tuesdays, and follow me on Twitter at SamFateKeeper to catch all my latest hot takes.

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  1. Just on the off chance it's not something you're already aware of, the SCP Foundation is a pretty darn good example of recent and successful shared world collaborative fiction that exists outside capitalism.

    1. Yeah it's on my radar! I'm finding it a little bewildering to get into it, but that might be part of what I end up writing about tbh. I'm very interested in how they've structured things since it seems much more like a free for all than what I'm probably gonna end up leaning towards/proposing. thanks for the tip!


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