Monday, May 18, 2020

The numbers, Mason. What do they mean?

This one’s a little tricky. I set up an argument, then halfway through I flip it and argue the opposite. I’m talking about what things mean in fiction, and how fair it is to expect your audience to know what they mean when that meaning isn’t found anywhere in the story itself. It’s about in- and out-of-text references, basically.

Got it? Right.

At the end of the eleventh theatrical Star Wars movie and ninth in the main series of trilogies, “The Rise of Skywalker,” the heroine Rey “Skywalker” Palpatine return’s to Luke’s childhood home, buries his and Leia’s lightsabers in the ground, then pulls out her own newly-made one and briefly ignites it. Revealing, dun dun DUN, that the blade is … yellow! Wow.

So the capstone, the culmination and the climax of nine movies, forty years, thousands of special effects shots, a centillion toys and one young boy’s rather unhealthy fixation with Carrie Fisher was: A lemon-flavored lightsaber.

So what?

Well, that’s a good question. What does it mean? It’s a new color, after the blue, green and red ones we’ve seen in the movies (and Samuel L. Jackson’s purple one), so, symbolic of new beginnings maybe? As a kid who grew up with the toys, the only thing it calls to mind is that one of the Luke action figures had a yellow lightsaber. The movie is packed to the hyperdrives with callbacks, so maybe it’s just another blast of pointless nostalgia?

What I’m saying is, it’s not calling back to anything we’ve been shown earlier in the movie, or even in any of the earlier movies. There’s no reference in the “text” (the story or action of the movie, or book, or play, or game, or whatever) to lightsabers of any color having any meaning.

Some people get really mad when you say that, though (and they have, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to write this post). Of course a Star Wars nerd immersed in, sigh, lore, will tell you all about the 2003 video game “Knights of the Old Republic” and how a game mechanic designed to allow for character and playstyle customization means X Y not to mention Z, but come on, to your average audience member, the scene meant precisely jack shit. The meaning, to the extent there is one (and I think the gamers are giving JJ Abrams far too much credit), is found out-of-text.

“The Rise of Skywalker” does this a lot, not just about the color filter of its lightsaber effects. What the heck is Exegol, who lives there, where did they get a huge fleet and the people to crew it? Ah, read the Visual Dictionary. Finn's putative Force-sensitivity was explained in an interview with Hollywood Reporter. And so on.

Star Wars isn’t the only franchise doing it either. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling apparently spends most of her post-Potter years tweeting new facts that never appeared in the books, such as Dumbledore’s sexual proclivities.

This gets into the more interesting question of semiotics—what do things mean—and more specifically, in- and out-of-text references in constructing meaning.

Let’s set the ground rules first. If you want an action or thing in a movie to have some meaning beyond the thing itself—such as Cobb’s spinning top in “Inception” being symbolic of his obsession with the past, or the idea that only those ‘worthy’ can pick up Thor’s hammer in “Age of Ultron”—then that meaning has to be established in the story itself. It has to be in the text. It can’t be buried in some 20-year-old video game. You can’t just stick it in the Visual Dictionary or mention it casually in a tweet. Stories don’t work that way. The meaning has to be in the story. It can’t be out-of-text.

This isn’t some special law of movie-making or book-writing, this is just, like, “if you want people to know what you’re talking about you have to explain what you’re talking about.” You know? “The message of the story has to be in the story.” It’s common sense.


Told you I was going to flip this halfway through.

There are plainly things you can reference and allude to without spelling it out for the audience, or even hinting at within your book or movie, yet you can still fairly expect them to understand. If someone finds a sword in a stone, you’ll automatically know that pulling out that sword is a sign of worthiness. The writer doesn’t have to remind you of the whole King Arthur mythos, they can expect you to know it. If some dude gets shot or stabbed and flails his arms to the side in, you know, the shape of a cross, we don’t have to be told this is an allusion to Jesus. You don’t need an establishing conversation where characters talk about what a nice bloke Jesus was and how sad it was that he got crucified. We just get it.

Let’s go back to Thor’s hammer. Later on in the movie series, in “End Game,” Captain America picks up and uses the hammer. The movie doesn’t explain the whole worthiness thing all over again. It assumes you know, even though it’s a reference to an earlier movie, not within “End Game” itself.

In other words, I think the concept of what is “in-text” and “out-of-text” is elastic. For some things, we can expand it, based on a shared culture and understanding. In the introduction up there, I tossed around the names Luke and Leia and just expected you to follow along, because anybody who knows about Star Wars will also know who they are. In the Marvel movies, there’s a whole freight train of characters, relationships, abilities and other universe-building you’re just expected to be on board with from the get-go.

To a certain extent, then, I think it’s fair to expect audiences especially of these larger, longer-running and more popular franchises, to get not only the surface meaning but also the connotation of it without signposting back to earlier works in the series.

The question then becomes, how far does the concept stretch? If older Star Wars movies are fair game, then what about the video games? The comic books? The, sigh, Visual Dictionary? If it’s reasonable to expect audiences to be familiar with other Marvel movies, how about the comics? Where do you draw the line?

I think the only honest answer is ‘depends,’ and I think it depends both on the audience, how engaged they are with the property, and on the thing being referenced. The broader the audience, the less in-depth knowledge they’re going to have. More cultish fanbases are probably more accepting of obscure references.

Similarly, the more popular the thing being referenced, the more you can get away with. You can reference the Bible without too much preamble.

Though this has to be of secondary importance, because the purpose of all communication is to have the thing you are trying to communicate be understood by someone else. If you’re just pontificating for your own gratification, jeez, write a blog or something. Oh.

Star Wars, at least in its original incarnation, had the broadest audience imaginable. Everyone saw it. You can certainly still put winks and callbacks from games or comics into the stories for the uber-fans, just don’t make them part of the climactic finale. More targeted offerings like the Disney+ shows can get away with more because they’ll have a narrower audience. Hence, literally every character who has ever appeared will now be appearing in season 2 of “The Mandalorian.”

Marvel movies, similarly, have huge, huge audiences, the Avengers ones in particular the hugest, so you can safely refer to other movies, but probably not the comics. Even Captain America needed a first movie to establish who he was. Again, a costume, a line of dialog, sure, throw the die-hards a bone, but you can’t have a key plot point depend on reading Uncanny X-Men #129 (Jan. 1963, “Save us from the Knights of Hellfire!”)

Back to Rey’s lightsaber then. The game came out in 2003, and Wikipedia tells me it sold 3 million copies, making it pretty popular. Ah. But. “Rise of Skywalker” made $1 billion internationally, so assuming a generous $20 per head, that works out to 50 million people (“The Force Awakens” made twice as much, FWIW). The problem is then that you had a climactic scene which slightly less than 10% of the audience had even a chance of understanding, even assuming every single person who bought the game also saw the movie.

So I’m not saying movies and books or whatever can’t do it, but come on, let’s be reasonable. We know the fannest of fans have read every tie-in novel, comic book and Wookiepedia entry, played every game, watched every episode of every show. That cannot and should not be the baseline for any product hoping to have a mass appeal.

Yes to the idea that the ‘text’ of popular movies should include a basic understanding of the way these universes work or who the people are, but no to the idea that this extends to cover every single scrap of minutiae.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The one about canon

I’m in a spouting nonsense mood, and the target of today’s spout is the concept of canon. Particularly as the term applies to the concept of the fictional ‘facts’ of a fictional universe, as portrayed in various works of fiction.

The facts of fiction. Right. It’s fundamentally an oxymoron.

Canon in its modern meaning didn’t really matter until properties like Star Wars and Star Trek expanded beyond their home bases in movies and TV respectively, into books, comics, video games and tabletop games. The idea was to ensure consistency in plot and world details, even as you had dozens, scores, if not hundreds of different writers working on different stories in different media more or less at the same time.

The hardcore fans of pretty much anything love it. Love it, love it, absolutely love it. Lap that stuff up like it’s liquid ketamine. Can’t get enough of it. Canon makes the whole phenomenon of gatekeeping fictional properties possible. There are few things that warm their hearts more than telling each other they’re wrong about the canon. Few things they cherish more than pointing out errors and inconsistencies in canon, or endlessly fan theorizing about it, constructing great cathedrals of meaning out of throwaway lines published in, like, a children’s picture book.

And they shouldn’t. By god, they shouldn’t. If you really love Star Wars, or Star Trek, or, lawd, I don’t know, My Little Pony, you should absolutely be against the idea of canon. Reboots, remakes, retellings, alternate and parallel universes, mashups, all of the things that destroy canon mean you get more of the property you love. You get more and more varied stories. You get to experience it more, fresh and new again. You should love it when content creators throw canon to the wind.

Yet we don’t, and I’m not sure why. I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about canon. In fact, it’s a little weird that people cared.

There’s no obvious reason why they would—after all, the one modern entertainment medium where multiple writers had long worked on a shared universe was comic books, where characters live, die, appear to die but don’t, are reborn, reincarnated, rescued from alternate dimensions or future timelines as a matter of course. Spider-Man has been through more incarnations than a Hindu with a death wish, there have been more Batmans in history than there have been presidents of the United States of America and the X-Men’s Jean Grey has been killed and resurrected at least twice a decade since the 70’s.

Looking back at history, there too we find the concept of fictional canon is notable mainly for its total nonexistence. Disney’s efforts to the contrary, there is no one single, canonical version of any of the fairy tales, nor of Achilles, nor King Arthur. There’s evidently nothing inherent in fiction that requires or demands that there be a canon.

Plenty of modern properties also ignore the whole concept altogether—there’s no Mad Max canon, although some have tried to write one, Doctor Who’s time-traveling shenanigans make mincemeat of the very concept at anything but the most basic level, Dungeons and Dragons novels largely get around the concept by having enough alternate worlds to give Schrodinger’s cat an anxiety attack.

While there are sound storytelling, narrative objectives in ensuring consistency among your various story lines, it’s not hard to see there are less pure motives at work, too.

There are obvious commercial reasons for the property holders’ love of promoting the idea canon. Together with copyright, it is one more lever that ensures they maintain control of, and can profit from, the shared universe. Property holders alone get to determine what counts and what doesn’t, giving their own products a seal of legitimacy and banishing all others to the despised realm of fan fiction.

Gatekeeping is another obvious motive. Collecting, memorizing and categorizing facts makes a lot of people comfortable, gives them a sense of order and control that is otherwise often missing from our lives. Knowledge of canon can be used to browbeat other fans and make yourself feel smarter, more important in whatever fan community you’re a part of. So it’s rooted in insecurity and fear, too.

The good news is, I think the idea of canon is going to wither away slowly but surely. The most popular franchises at the moment, Marvel and Star Wars and Star Trek, are all reaching the limits of what they can do within a single, supposedly internally consistent continuity. Star Trek has already rebooted both its movies and streaming properties (calling it a TV show sounds anachronistic now, doesn’t it?) New Star Wars properties sound like they’ll be set in different time periods, precisely to get away from problems with canon. The original actors in Marvel movies are reaching the ends of their contracts.

You see long-term, canon is simply unsustainable. I’m a fan of the BattleTech games that have been around since the 80s, and my God, the canon is a useless mess. It just accretes, gathers more and more mass, weighing down everything about the property until you can’t write anything new about anything in this universe. It calcifies everything, ossifies it, fossilizes it. Nothing new can be done, nothing can grow. It kills the property.

As we move more and more into more oral styles of storytelling, I think this will accelerate the trend. We’ll want the same stories retold over and over, which will kill the whole purpose of canon.

It’s time for canon to end.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Have you heard any good books lately?

Print is out. Video and audio are in.

Fueled by cheap, ubiquitous broadband and tech like smartphones, smart speakers and wireless earphones, we’re listening to Spotify podcasts and Audible audiobooks, watching hourlong pop culture essays on YouTube, we’re consuming stories in almost every form but words on a page or ink on paper.

Take the car industry, for example. The company I work for makes manuals—owner’s manuals, repair manuals, wiring manuals, stuff like that. And the single biggest challenge we face is that nobody reads any of them. Not a one. When was the last time you looked at your owner’s manual, and the only correct answer is ‘never.’ They’re about as effective as banner ads on websites.

In terms of online publishing, the smartphone, and the associated rise of one-stop-shop sites like Google, reddit and Facebook, have annihilated advertising revenue, leading to both the decline of the traditional newspaper and magazine, and the rise of one-paragraph stories written by freelancers and capped with a clickbait headline.

Yet it doesn’t seem to be a problem with attention spans. Passive entertainment is up, up, way up. Red Letter Media’s Star Wars prequels takedowns were longer than the movies themselves. A third of people in Canada, Australia and the US listen to a podcast on a monthly basis, and ad revenue for podcasts has grown from $169 million to an estimated $659 million from 2016 to 2020.

Although book sales were up 1.5% from 2016-17, audio books were up 20% over the same period in the USA. More recently, in January of this year, accounting firm Deloitte predicted the audio book market would growth a further 25% in 2020. Even in the current crisis, the spoken word is in—Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets, Andy Serkis the Hobbit.

Which got me wondering: Are we slowly becoming a post-literate society? And if so, what does that mean?

For centuries, the written word had a lock on literature thanks to a killer combination of advantages—permanence, portability, shareability, long reach at relatively low cost—but tech is eating away at those advantages, byte by byte. Audio and video files are as permanent as any paper or digital book, as light and portable as the latter, and have the added benefit of not requiring any of that tedious eyeball movement to enjoy.

(Tangent: People banging on about podcasts being popular now because of people’s “busy lives these days” irritate the piss out of me—like everyone was just lounging around for the last three centuries until the iPhone came along. Average working hours have been going down since the Industrial Revolution. It’s like SciFi franchises that excuse the drab nastiness of their grimdark settings by talking about reflecting the ‘dark times’ we live in. Mate, I grew up expecting the Russians to nuke us all into oblivion any day. Settle down.)

Much as I love reading though, I got to admit, it isn’t exactly natural, is it? Millions of years of evolution weren’t really selecting hominids on the basis of their ability to get through Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time", were they? There’s a reason millions of people around the world are illiterate: Reading is effing hard, man. It takes concentration. Time and effort. Given the choice between reading and, er, not reading, plenty of us are opting for Plan B.

When all the world’s knowledge was stored in written form, that attitude was a drawback, but hey presto, it ain’t so anymore. Every explanation is now a 10-minute YouTube tutorial. You could, for example, acquire an in-depth knowledge of the entire history of the Napoleonic Wars without ever reading a line of text more challenging than the title of a video. Why send an Email when you can talk to them on Zoom?

With social media, even our text-based messages are behaving more like oral communication: Temporary, here now, gone tomorrow; repeated, repackaged and regurgitated in different forms depending on the audience; subjective, their effectiveness dependent on the personality and character of the person providing the information, rather than its accuracy or truthfulness.

And I think that’s the way we’re going. There will always be books, of course, just as some people still write letters, just as there are still printed newspapers or vinyl LPs, just, I don’t think they’ll be the mainstream anymore. Entertainment, especially, where accuracy and retention is less important than say, civil engineering where there’s a possibility of crushing hundreds of people if your bridge collapses, are going to become more and more oral, with all that entails.

Novels will become performance pieces. The voice talent is going to matter as much as the story itself does. Ah boy oh boy, you're never going to get what ironically appropriate thing is going to happen to the  “death of the author” theory (Hint: It will die). 

We’ll see more retellings and reboots and mashups, as the same winner-takes-all mechanics that reduced the Internet to about a dozen sites winnow away our stories to a handful of classics (thousands will continue to self-publish, but then as now, nobody will notice). The Iliad, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, Jesus. That’s it. As with modern movies, you’ll have the literature equivalent of Marvel, Star Wars, Fast Furious, Disney Princess and then a whole ocean of minor hits for niche audiences.

Novels, however, are not the most digestible form of audio storytelling. Shorter, more easily digestible serials will be back in a big way, like the way Charles Dickens originally appeared in print, or think Conan and Gray Mouser, John Carter, Green Hornet or Flash Gordon. It'll be the audiobook equivalent of a 10-part Netflix series.

Blogs, of course, will quickly die a slow and horrible death. But, come on man, who even reads blogs these days?