Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Crushing Weight of Canon

Scott D. Parker

At my book club this past Tuesday, we discussed Andy Weir’s new novel, ARTEMIS. Generally, we all liked it. The grades for all five of us averaged out to somewhere in the B range. One of our fellows—the one who gave it the lowest grade—said this about the book: without the nifty descriptions of the workings of Artemis, the only city on the moon, the book and plot are quite slight.  Another person asked what has become, perhaps, an obvious question in this modern day and age: Did we think ARTEMIS had any connection or lived in the same universe as Weir’s other novel, THE MARTIAN?

The question led us down a rabbit trail of observations. ARTEMIS is a slim book and it achieved a good blend of world building without pages and pages of backstory and exposition. The talk quickly went back to the classic SF novels of the 1950s through the 1970s when major classics like RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA were not very thick. More importantly with RAMA, not all questions were answered. Why? One possibility was that Arthur. C. Clarke wanted readers to think, to wonder, and, perhaps, to finish the book each in their own way.

Cut to modern times. For this mental exercise, I’m landing more or less at 1980. In the past four decades, we have seen the rise of thicker and thicker genre novels with tons of world building. Some readers are cool with that. I am, too, but only to a degree. In addition, there was the rise of role playing game source books, with every minute detail laid out for the players to pore over, memorize, and internalize. More and more media products—books, comics, movies, TV, games—all began to have their own internal source bibles, a canon. The original sixty Sherlock Holmes stories are called “The Canon.” Serialized TV shows began to have an overarching “mythology” and writers of all stripes were steered back into the canonized boundaries.

That’s all well and good and I frankly love it when a later-season episode of The X-Files refers back to something I remembered from season 1. I’m a fan. I dig it. Ditto for Batman comics and Marvel movies and even modern-day Doc Savage novels. Speaking of Savage, when Philip Jose Farmer went to craft his "biography" of Doc, Farmer said he had the devil of a time because he was having to codify—Canonize—the work of a dozen authors over 181 novels all to meet a deadline.

But along the way, The Canon (and here, I use it in a general sense for any given property) begins to weigh down imagination. The most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, was, I think, burdened with the crushing weight of Canonized Star Wars. Force projection? That can’t be done. Force Space Flying? That can’t be done. Ships jumping to light speed against and through another ship? That can’t be done.

Why? Because canon dictated it.

Well, so what?

On the one hand, director and writer Rian Johnson probably butted up against established canon and had someone tell him ‘no.’ On the other hand, his decision was to burst the bubble of canon and tell a story outside the canon. Granted, he has now made new canon and has expanded the boundaries of what can be done with Star Wars, but that’s kind of what I’m talking about. The boundaries of certain properties get so rigid that someone needs to come along and just blow them up and reform them anew. Give writers a chance to expand a canon while still respecting it. More often than not, the breath of fresh air given a property will satisfy.

Oh, and we all agreed that ARTEMIS and THE MARTIAN are likely not in the same universe. We all agreed that it was a good thing. Two stories, well told, and each could be enjoyed on their own.

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