Hello fellow travelers,
Coronavirus changes have made a surprisingly significant difference in my day-to-day (as I’m sure is far more true for those of you out there who, unlike me, had to transition to remote work in the last few weeks). My reading and other side projects have definitely been impacted, but following the advice of the ever-excellent Robin Sloan, I refuse to let this go wholly by the wayside. This may not be the longest or deepest issue of this newsletter I ever publish, but I’m going to keep publishing. It’s good for me, and I hope it’s good for you.
This is Across the Sundering Seas, a basically-weekly newsletter by Chris Krycho, digging into the things I’ve been reading recently—from theological anthropology to (decades-old) sci-fi thrillers. (You can always unsubscribe at any time.)
For today’s missive, just a short thought—inspired once again not by something like The Printing Press of an Agent of Change, but by a Michael Crichton novel. I enjoyed Jurassic Park so much that I turned around and picked up a copy of The Lost World and plowed through it this week. It’s not quite as good a book as the original—and in particular, it was less interested in saying things than the first book was, at least about the subjects that have my interest. It did, however, make me think about retcons.
“Retcon” is short for “retroactive continuity.” It describes the phenomenon of a later work in sprawling works of long-running fiction—especially, and I think originally, comics—changing the meaning of earlier entries in the fiction. Perhaps “Wolverine died” is the basic original meaning of an earlier issue, but it turns out that he only appeared to die, but it was actually part of a plan the X-Men had all along. Notice that this doesn’t count if in fact the original comic intended Wolverine’s death to be part of a secret plan; it only counts if the latter comic is actually revising what the original story means by saying something new about it. Note as well that a retcon can—like any other move in literature—be done well or done poorly. Bad retcons are bald-faced attempts by authors to have their cake and eat it too, to ignore or overwrite the previous meaning of the text. Good retcons take the original material and invest it with new meaning: they work with the original text instead of against it.1
There’s a fairly significant retcon at the beginning of The Lost World, which is what got me thinking about this. (I’m avoiding spoilers even though Jurassic Park is 30 years old and The Lost World 25 years old, because if you haven’t read them, this particular point really does deserve not to spoiled!) This particular retcon is, to be honest, more in the overwrite previous meaning bucket, but I let it pass—mostly because I like what it lets Crichton do in the rest of the book. And this of course is precisely why authors retcon things: because it allows them to tell the story they want to tell without the constraints of the story as it has already been told.
Retcons don’t just happen in fiction, though. In the real world, we call it propaganda, or sometimes even just history. George Orwell pointed to a particularly egregious form of this in 1984, but the phenomenon need not be so overt and involve so much double-think (!) as all that. Much of the hubbub about “fake news” over the last few years has come down precisely to attempts to spin the facts as they have been reported in a new direction, to tell a story more palatable or persuasive to a given audience. And, perhaps most saliently, “retcon” seems to me to be the perfect word for the ongoing propaganda efforts by the Chinese government to spin their catastrophic failures in dealing with the coronavirus into something—anything—else.2
The temptation is a human one. It’s mostly harmless in fiction; done right it can even be truly wonderful. In the real world… not so much. Telling the truth is always better in the long run (even if it hurts in the short run).
There’s an interesting point of analogy to “canonical” readings of the Bible, which have a long and storied tradition in the history of the Christian church. Do canonical readings count as “retcons”? I suppose it depends on how you approach the question of authorship—both generally: is the author “dead”?; and specifically: how does the question of mixed divine and human authorship come to play, if you grant divine inspiration? On that latter front: is it reasonable to say that God uses later Scripture to retcon earlier Scriptures, from the perspective of the human authors involved? It’d be an interesting theology paper at a minimum. ↩
I note here that it’s likely that the Trump administration’s telling—and Trump’s specifically—will end up deserving the same moniker. But I also refuse to conflate even the awful degree of folly and wickedness of this government (which is substantial) with that of the Chinese government (which is much worse). ↩