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Continuity, or Why You Are a Bad Person and Should Feel Bad

This picture will make sense soon, I promise.
This picture will make sense soon, I promise.

Here I am, writing a column telling you to stop buying Star Wars novels if you don’t like them. “Why would you waste your time saying something this elementary? Do you think we are stupid?”, I hear some of you grumbling (especially you, the dork in the Robotech shirt: I can see you). No, I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you are smart enough to still read books in the era of the iTwitterbook, and you are obviously intelligent enough to choose this website as your place to go for Star Wars discussion (we are on your bookmarks, right? Right?). I know you are a smart person. I’m assuming you also have disposable income and that you regularly spend a chunk of it, no matter how large or small, on material that will make Lucasfilm’s coffers fill up. That’s good! What I’m trying to tell you is that if you are buying part of that material just because of a completist need, then you are part of the problem, this problem being that a lot of crap is getting released.

“But I like collecting figures!”, you say. Yeah, sorry, I should have explained myself: I’m talking about fiction, not about collectibles. If you collect fiction, you are making it worse for the rest of us. What a bold claim! How do I dare? Well, I dare because I have a keyboard, that should be obvious, but also because I love Star Wars and I’ve seen our relationship (mine and Star Wars’) become an abusive one for years, all because of that terrible c-word, the one that rhymes with “Mitch Buchanan”. It’s such an awful word (and so often misused!) that for this piece I will use the “continuity” euphemism in its place. But let me explain what I mean, and I’ll do it using my favorite conversation topic: myself. Hi, I’m David, and I used to be a completist.

I was a dork, yes, but I didn't have a silly Robotech shirt like you do!
I was a dork, yes, but I didn’t have a silly Robotech shirt like you do!

My relationship with the concept of continuity has always been complex. Back in the late nineties, before I joined the larger fandom I was just a dumb kid in Spain that loved the original movies, directed an RPG campaign (still ongoing) and wasted hours and hours on the classic LucasArts games. I read the Expanded Universe novels as they were published in my home country, years after they were in the States, and whenever I found a continuity error (for example, Luke being called “destroyer of the Sun Crusher” in Children of the Jedi, or Kevin J. Anderson being called “writer” in Darksaber) I merely ignored it as an edition mistake and moved on. I liked seeing TIE Defenders and Dark Troopers appear in the Rebellion strategy game, and finding a comic that starred Mara Jade (By The Emperor’s Hand) excited me to no end, so it’s not like I was repulsed by continuity: I found it enhanced the storytelling experience and was happy with it being a thing.

This changed when I, like many of my colleagues here in this website, joined the Literature board at the Jedi Council Forums. I actually lurked for months, and started seeing that those guys had a very different approach to continuity. I saw fans creating convoluted patches to make everything fit, refusing to acknowledge the possibility of continuity mistakes being just that, mistakes. It appealed to my intellectual side: it was a challenge and well, it was fun. How to make the Marvel comics fit with the New Jedi Order? How to make Tales of the Jedi fit with The Phantom Menace? I saw that once a fan retcon was achieved, it was accepted as fact and quoted over and over in different threads. I found it weird but I wondered if that was how Star Wars continuity worked (and, if I was mean enough, I would say that this approach would eventually give birth to Wookieepedia, but I won’t). I accepted it as the norm and became a continuity-minded fan. One more.

As years went on, I eventually stopped reading Expanded Universe novels (not by choice, but because they stopped being published in my home country and apparently I hadn’t heard of Amazon) and limited myself to a couple of comic ongoings, but I never stopped being interested in the growing Expanded Universe, so it’s not like I had became a continuity hater. Even if the quality of the books didn’t do it for me anymore, there was still some wild imagination involved in the world building process. I mean: electric caliphs! You have to love that!

I also started reading dissenting voices, and not just from random fans: I remember Randy Stradley complaining about how the technical specs of the TIE fighter, defined ages before in the RPG, had forced them to use some awkward storytelling choices in Darklighter and how world-building should serve the needs of storytelling and not the other way round, something I thought made total sense. I myself remember thinking when I first read about the story of Darth Ruin, “Why? Why does one paragraph in one reference guide rob a future author the chance to write his take about something as important as the rise of the New Sith? What do we gain with this? Why is this okay?” I posed the question online, once, and I was told that authors should be able to write around this, or they shouldn’t be writing for Star Wars. That was the first time that I thought that this approach to continuity was (if you excuse my French-Canadian) boneheaded.

Let me tell you about the Hoojibs!
“Let me tell you about Hoojibs!”

Then, one fateful day, I read a transcript of the panel where Legacy of the Force was first announced. I couldn’t believe it when I read that Lumiya was going to be the main antagonist! That night, drinking beers with my friends, the same friends that had played the RPG with me for many years, I mentioned that a new novel series was coming. They were excited about it, as they had missed on the New Jedi Order novels but were aching for new Star Wars, so I mentioned what I had heard on the panel. Their shared answer was:

“Wait, who is this Lumiya?”

I smiled and answered, explaining her story, from her Shira Brie years to her apparitions in Star Wars Gamer. One of my friends, the only one that still cared a bit about the Expanded Universe, laughed and said:

“One second. So the bad guy of this new series is going to be some ex-girlfriend of Luke Skywalker who became an apprentice of Darth Vader and an Emperor’s Hand and who somehow has been under the radar as the only Rule of Two survivor for years. And before this she’s only been featured in some comics from the 1980s and some RPG adventures? Really? Who the hell are they writing these novels for?”

It hit me. Who the hell, indeed. These guys loved Star Wars, but in the span of one minute I had seen their excitement going from ten to zero. Had continuity become poisonous to new readership, as I often saw editors claiming in comic book message boards? Had Del Rey given up and were just trying to appeal to hardcore fans, the ones that would buy anything just because it was part of the same continuous story? And worse than that: had continuity become an excuse to stop trying to offer quality?

I’m not saying that you should agree with me when I say that Star Wars novels, with a few remarkable exceptions, have become terrible: I’m saying that, if you do, you should stop giving them your hard-earned money. There’s a saying you’ve probably heard: we live in a capitalistic society, so you vote with your wallets. If you don’t like something, you just stop buying it. You don’t buy it because you want a complete collection or because you are afraid you will miss some cute retcon. When you do something like that, you’re just giving the editorial no reasons to give a crap. Why bother offering good content -or even proofreading the damn things- when your readership are going to buy any crap you release?

I wany you to stop buying crap!
I want you to stop buying crap!

If you agree the quality of the books has gone downhill but are a continuity addict, I have good news for you. Your continuity is no more. This plea would probably have fallen on dear ears just three years ago, when books derided almost universally still hit the New York Times bestseller list every single time, but that time is gone. They made it easy for you! It’s time to vote with your money. It’s time to hit them where it hurts. So stop buying books automatically without reading reviews and asking around: your money is limited and, if you don’t like what you hear, you should wait until the book gets cheaper or -God forbid- just don’t buy the damn thing. If you feel insulted by a book or if you feel like you’re the victim of a con game, just don’t buy their next offering: there’s a lot of good pulpy fantasy that will satisfy your need to be entertained. I’m not saying you should expect Star Wars novels to be like high literature, either: I’m telling you that even pulp novels have standards, that there is Conan and there is Gor. Don’t give them an excuse to keep producing low quality because they know you are going to keep buying it no matter what. And if you still feel like you have to keep buying Star Wars because you are going to miss out on the world-building or because you are going to drop off the train of the new continuity, let me tell you a secret: good continuity is always secondary to well written books. No, it’s not a matter of taste: you are buying fiction, not guidebooks. Continuity is Star Wars’ consolation prize. And you know what it means when you get a consolation prize? That you lost.

23 thoughts to “Continuity, or Why You Are a Bad Person and Should Feel Bad”

  1. I kind of agree that it’s dumb just to mindlessly buy everything in the franchise for the sake of it. I’ve started to get the new novels from the library, mostly just because I don’t have the space to keep a ton of books. If I really like one, I’ll buy it at some point.
    Hopefully the new approach with the story group will take care of some of these continuity errors that were prevalent in the old EU.

  2. This is why I’ve been such a frequent patron of my library. Plus, you know, free is nice, even for a great book. Though I have picked up ebooks for all three of the books in the new canon. Maybe once I actually read HTTJ, that’ll change…

  3. Just wanted to add that on the flip side? Buy the stuff that’s good. I bashed my head against the wall when friends who’d fled the EU after DNT/LotF/FotJ refused to buy books like Mercy Kill and Scoundrels. Blanket protests don’t work any better than buying everything.

    1. Damn straight. I skipped the Denningverse and plowed straight into Mercy Kill without any problems. The idea that you need to read story A, B, C before a certain book is rubbish, unless it’s a clearly designed serial – bk 1, 2, 3 etc..

    1. There are middle points, that’s for sure. Grant Morrison talked about something I think he called “super-consistency”, back in 2000 when he started writing X-Men and he had to deal with a continuity that had become so convoluted and opaque that everyone had given up on it. The approach he discussed was something like “use what you really need, discard what doesn’t work anymore, and simply stop talking about the rest unless you really have to”. It made sure you didn’t necessarily lose the rich history that had gone before, but storytelling automatically became more important than continuity, if only because continuity could no longer be used a crutch. And, what with the massive amount of EU material the new canon (agh) is using, I think that in a certain way the Story Group is taking a similar approach, no matter how drastic the word “reboot” sounds.

      1. If I might tie into an earlier piece of yours, this was actually done really well by Mark Waid’s Daredevil—he immediately followed a super intense and grim multi-year stretch of DD stories and yet pulled off an almost complete tonal 180 by zooming in on the one thing he could have the most fun with, his identity getting out, and only dealing with the rest of it in small amounts once the new tone was established.

  4. Preach it. I hit this point a long time ago. I love a LOT of the old continuity. I love Zahn, Stackpole, Allston (*sniff*), I enjoy some of the comics but not others, I still hold my WEG sourcebooks near and dear to my heart, and a while back, when I realized reading even some books by authors I love (I’m looking at you, Zahn and, God forgive me, Allston) was feeling not like a labor of love but just like labor (“Who ARE these characters? You know, this backstory was way more interesting before you tried to explain it…”) I don’t have to read these. No one is holding a gun to my head screaming “IF YOU LOVE STAR WARS YOU HAVE TO BUY THESE BOOKS!” It’s a remarkably liberating feeling. The new Legacy status just cinched it as I realized okay, this means “officially”, Heir to the Empire never happened…but so that means I can just pretend neither did the end of The Last Command. Darksaber who? Callista? Never happened. Black Fleet Crisis? Don’t know a thing about it. Okay, I never did. I literally forget that one exists at all even before it was ‘de-canoned’ into Legacy. Likewise, while I know for a fact that I read The Crystal Star, I genuinely cannot remember anything other than the cover.

  5. To say that the issues with many of the novels quality was due to “Continuity” is a little farsical. Yes buying everything regardless of quality just because it is canon or in continuity is a major issue. Many of the worst books of the last decade (LOTF cough) were an issue because the authorial team deviated so radically from the continuity that came before them and they had poor plotting. That had nothing to do with being in continuity.

    1. There’s no farce here, there’s only pure, undiluted truth– I mean, there’s just my honest opinion. But you are misreading me, anyway. I never said continuity was the main issue with the state of the books. A thick and unpenetrable continuity is the reason new readers don’t bother trying and yes, when it becomes the main focus it does have a negative influence on the quality of the story; the widespread poor quality of the books is a separate issue (and a matter of personal opinion) and not something we can just blame on the past obsession with continuity. What I’m saying in the article is: if you don’t like the novels.. and I’m not saying you don’t have to dislike them, but… if you don’t like the current state of the novels, don’t use continuity porn as an excuse to keep buying them, because you are not giving the people in charge any incentives to try to make them better. Period.

      Also, I’m assuming that with LOTF you are talking about things like Vergere being revealed as a Sith in sheep clothes, and in that case I wouldn’t call that a case of “bad continuity” but a case of bad (or at least questionable) characterization. If anything, during the last decade, continuity has been extreeeeemely tight.

  6. I have to agree whole-heartedly about the “vote with your wallet” sentiment. I actually took a break from the EU for a while (around the Legacy of the Force period) whereas before I’d gobble up every novel as they came. But it came to a point where I felt like I was rewarding bad behavior, with my only consolation that I could complain about it on the internet. Not good enough. That said — I did pick up the stuff I thought was worth getting: Mercy Kill, Scoundrels, the Atlas and Warfare guides.

    As far as continuity, David rightly points out that it’s a separate issue that he just treated in the same piece. I like continuity and world-building and I do think that things should try to be consistent, but it does get in the way sometimes. I think authors should do their homework (I have gripes with those who appear to simply not care) but a novel with perfect continuity still isn’t going to be a perfect novel.

    And continuity is such a broad term anyway. Consistency is important just for good storytelling. But obscure continuity should be a treat for hardcore fans, but not the price of entry. I love the denseness of Legends — warts and all — but now we have the opportunity to do something narratively interesting, and use clever devices to get around continuity blocks (rumors, legends, etc.).

    But as David points out — if they get lazy about it or the stories just aren’t good, don’t buy them! Between the movies, the comics, the TV shows, and the novels there’s something out there to get you a Star Wars fix, you don’t need to get everything.

  7. There’s an odd disconnect with complaints about the ‘overwhelming’ continuity of Legends, and enthusiasm for the New Universe. One person recently boasted exultantly that the New Universe would have ‘ten times’ the amount of canon as Legends in a few short years (never mind that much of it was borrowed from Legends in the first place); isn’t that supposed to be a bad thing? LFL must not think so, otherwise we wouldn’t have such an emphasis on how all of it is supposedly going to be interconnected now (although I remain skeptical on how much influence the novels and comics will have on the movies and TV shows, and imagine that a de facto canon system is really still in place).
    And the existence of guidebooks and sourcebooks negate the whole ‘must collect everything’. Why do I need to read the Crystal Star if isn’t really that good and the New Essential Chronology just summarized it? Or read it to learn about Waru when the Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia has an entry? Not only that, but the guidebooks have become works of literature in of themselves – whether the living history detailed in the Essential Atlas, or the extensive in-universe comments in the Book of the Sith. There have been plenty of other franchises whose tie-ins are purely perfunctory, with big glossy pictures and text that regurgitates the same information that was present in the original source; Star Wars has been an exception, and that has been because of the worldbuilding, not in spite of it. Whether that will happen when the New Universe accumulates enough weight, I can’t say, but the current state of the Databank doesn’t exactly fill me with hope.

    1. What happens if a guide summarises a work badly or inaccurately? Or when you have books like Star by Star representing Edge of Victory II’s events differently or like I, Jedi does Jedi Academy Trilogy?

      The guide books can be great reference works, but do they get their info right 100%? If there’s something you really need to know, then first-hand is the best way to go if you can.

      1. I agree about first-hand knowledge, but only because I engage in the sort of pseudo-scholarship that requires that I dive into the original sources, whether works of arts or literary trainwrecks.
        For the regular and more sane fan, sourcebooks and guidebooks are the way to go. Like I said, Star Wars has been fortunate enough to have had some excellent ones (other recent examples: Discworld’s Guide to Ankh-Morpork or The World of Ice and Fire). The same reason that for real-life information we rely on encyclopedias, biographies, histories and other summaries of information. And like real life, I don’t expect it all to fit 100% – as my old sig quote stated, “Reality can rarely be explained without contradictions.” (However, as I sure you know, the guidebooks often also take the role of resolving or explaining contradictions that arise from multiple authors with varying degrees of success of keeping consistency writing for the franchise).
        As far as the novel references go – authors are going to have different takes, but that’s sometimes the point: I, Jedi was deliberately written so, especially since it was written from a particular character’s POV.

    2. The point when continuity becomes overwhelming is not when it becomes large, but when it becomes convoluted, but that’s possibly a topic that deserves more attention. There are many ways to keep a large continuity while still making it streamlined and accessible for everyone. I’d argue that any given continuity only becomes really obscure when it starts becoming the driving force of the storytelling process, when pieces start getting published just to explain past references and to weave retcons. Once again, I like to use the X-Men as an example. You have Cable: the time-displaced son of Cyclops and the clone of Jean Grey, raised in the future by his half-sister from a different alternate future and his own mentally-time-displaced parents (well, father and template of mother) and sometimes confused with his own clone. Try to explain that to a newcomer! The character has a massive continuity behind him, but you can have two kinds of series starring Cable: impenetrable continuity wank (ie, every single Cable issue in the 90s) or just good stories that don’t require you to know every single detail of his absurd backstory (just look at Darko Makan’s fantastic Soldier X). One makes the franchise obscure, one doesn’t.

      It remains to be seen if the Story Group will find any success with this new continuity or if they are going to end up saying “screw it, let’s just publish books for the hardcore”. I prefer not to judge them based on the recent books, as they are more or less “grandfathered EU”. We’ll see how they deal with the Sequel Trilogy era…

      1. The only Cable story I ever really got into was his adventures in the future with Hope—and that had not only Cable’s crazy personal history, but all of Bishop’s history being vital to his role as the antagonist, AND Hope’s origins stemming from both House of M and Second Coming. But the premise was compelling enough that it was good whether you know all that shit or not.

  8. I have to disagree there. Swierczynski’s series never really used Cable’s convoluted backstory, nor Bishop’s, except in a veeeery streamlined version (they are time-travellers and they come from opposing timelines: one wants to save a girl because in his future she’s a savior, the other one wants to kill her because in his future she’s a monster). All the lore about Hope and the influence in their futures was new material, that even ignored and changed big chunks of Bishop’s past backstory. It only really got dense during the Messiah War crossover with X-Force, and the story really suffered for it (Apocalypse, Stryfe, alternate Deadpool and alternate Kiden Nixon: go to hell).

    1. I agree with you—I’m saying that him streamlining their backstories is why it worked. If you knew the details it didn’t hurt, but the way you just summarized it was all that mattered. Regarding Hope, the backstory stuff just went to her being important somehow, you didn’t need to know exactly where she came from to get it.

  9. I think the problem that is really described here is the sort of continuity “gotcha” that gets played. If I pick up a Star Wars novel, I shouldn’t need to know (and remember) some tidbit from some role playing manual published in 1992. (I still get the shudders from remembering reading “Crucible” — yeah, find a better villain… or if you want to recycle, introduce them to a new audience.)

    It’s as though they forgot that not everyone wanted to have to run to Wookiepedia to make sense of stuff in each new book.

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